When a person’s blood alcohol content reaches a certain level, the alcohol prevents their brain from recording long-term memory. Blackouts can lead to more than just hangovers, as sexual assault, car crashes and damaged relationships often occur during blackout events.
Article at a Glance:
- Drinking so much that you can’t remember anything afterwards is called a blackout.
- People experiencing alcohol blackouts are often still awake and functioning during their blackout. They may attempt to drive, behave erratically or assault someone.
- Blackouts are most closely linked to a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC). A blackout can occur at a BAC of around 0.16%, sometimes lower.
- Regularly drinking to the point of a blackout is a sign of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Table of Contents
What Happens When You Blackout?
Binge drinking can quickly develop into a blackout situation, and people sometimes view blacking out as a sign of having fun. However, alcohol blackouts are a serious threat to a person’s health and safety. They increase the risk of other dangerous activities and consequences, such as injury, sexual assault, violence and alcohol poisoning.
The most pervasive symptom of blacking out is memory loss. Those who experience blackouts often have to ask others what they did during the period of memory loss. A person might find out that during their blackout, they:
- Insulted someone
- Spent money
- Engaged in some form of sexual activity
- Had unprotected sex
- Had unwanted sex
- Argued or fought with someone
- Damaged property
Memory loss is not the same as a lack of consciousness. Those who drink so much they can’t remember anything are often still awake and functioning during their blackout. They may act like they are aware of their surroundings, and they may attempt to drive, behave erratically or assault someone. Others may not realize the person is in the middle of an alcohol blackout.
A person who drank until they blacked out could find themselves in jail for a crime they don’t remember committing, or they could realize they were the victim of a sexual assault.
What Is a Blackout?
Alcohol blackouts are a form of memory loss (amnesia) brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. Some refer to alcohol blackouts as alcohol-induced amnesia.
A blackout is a complete (en bloc) period of amnesia in which the brain does not form new long-term memories. People who black out cannot remember where they were or what happened to them after they began drinking. Sometimes, they may wake up in a strange place or with a person they don’t know.
Partial alcohol-induced amnesia is often called a brownout. This is when a person can remember bits and pieces of the drinking episode but not the full experience.
What Causes Blackouts When Drinking?
Research shows alcohol can begin affecting a person’s brain after only one or two drinks. The more a person drinks, the more alcohol impairs their memory. Blackouts are most closely linked to a person’s blood alcohol content. A brownout or a blackout can occur at a BAC of around 0.16%. Drinking alcohol while taking anti-anxiety medications can also cause blackouts at a lower BAC.
Factors that impact a person’s BAC include:
- Recent food intake
- Drinking speed
- Number of drinks
How To Avoid Blackouts
It’s almost impossible to realize you’re blacking out while it’s happening. You may look and act aware, but you aren’t storing memories. It’s safer and easier to avoid blackouts altogether by managing your alcohol intake. Here are some ways to prevent overconsumption and the potential for a blackout.
Limit Alcohol Consumption Overall
Decide how much you’ll drink before you begin. Consider whether you need to drive, your state of health and how your drinking may affect other activities. Making a plan before you drink can help you set and stick to your limits.
Avoid Drinking on an Empty Stomach
Your body absorbs alcohol more slowly when food is in your stomach. Eat something before or while you drink to avoid becoming intoxicated too quickly.
Make a conscious effort to drink more slowly. Sip your beverage or put it slightly out of reach after each drink you take. This helps you remain less intoxicated and less likely to reach a blackout-level BAC.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking water can increase the time you take between each alcoholic drink. Water can also make you feel full, making it less comfortable to drink quickly.
Watch for Signs of Rapid Intoxication
If you notice signs of rapid intoxication, such as slurred speech, poor coordination or blurry vision, you may be overconsuming alcohol. These signs may mean you’re approaching a BAC where blackouts may occur.
Regularly drinking to the point of a blackout is a sign of alcohol abuse and addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling to stop using alcohol, help is available at The Recovery Village. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your needs.
Abbey, Antonia; et al. “Alcohol and Sexual Assault.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2001. Accessed September 14, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism September 19–20, 2012.” September 20, 2012. Accessed September 14, 2021.
White, Aaron M. “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2003. Accessed September 14. 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.” March 2021. Accessed September 14, 2021.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Alcohol and Driving.” (n.d.). Accessed September 14. 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” October 2004. Accessed September 14. 2021.
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