Teen Alcohol Blackouts

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 — sexual assault, car crashes and damaged relationships often ensue. Blacking out is a serious danger to teens, and loved ones should help their teens address this issue immediately.

Experiences with alcohol in high school and college include drinking until you pass out (or blacking out) — the universal sign of a fun night of youth. But blackouts due to alcohol are a serious threat to the health and safety of any person. Binge drinking can quickly turn to blackout, and a litany of other dangerous activities can follow, including injury, sexual assault, violence and alcohol poisoning.
Young woman walking home at night

The most pervasive symptom of blacking out is memory loss. Those who experience blackouts often have to ask friends what they did during the period of memory loss. In one survey of college students, their friends said 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

Alcohol blackouts — or any memory blackouts — are especially dangerous to teens because memory loss is not the same as a lack of consciousness. Getting blackout drunk often leaves the user incapacitated and in one place. Those who drink so much they can’t remember last night were still awake and functioning during the period, making them more likely to be the victim of a crime like theft or sexual assault, or more likely to commit a crime, like driving and crashing their car.

Just because the teen doesn’t remember what happened doesn’t mean the events didn’t happen — which in many ways is worse.

For example, the next morning, the drinker could find themselves in jail for a crime they don’t remember committing, or they could end up being the victim of a sexual assault on campus.

Alcohol blackouts are a form of amnesia, or memory loss, brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. Some refer to alcohol blackouts as alcohol-induced amnesia.

A blackout is a complete, or en bloc, period of amnesia, in which the brain does not form new long-term memories. People who have blacked out cannot remember where they were or what happened to them after they began drinking, and sometimes may even wake up in a strange place or with a strange person.

Teen boy after alcohol blackout

Partial, or fragmentary, alcohol-induced amnesia — when a person can remember bits and pieces of the time period but not the full experience — is often called a brownout.

What Causes Blackouts When Drinking?

Research shows alcohol can begin affecting a person’s memory after they have had only one or two drinks. The more a person drinks the more alcohol impairs their memory. Blackouts are most closely linked to the drinker’s blood alcohol content. A brownout or a blackout can occur at a BAC of around 0.14% to 0.17% BAC, but it’s considered very likely at .20% BAC.

Factors that impact a person’s BAC include:

  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Genetics
  • Recent food intake
  • Drinking speed
  • Type of alcohol they consume
People used to believe that only alcoholics experience blackouts, but new data shows this isn’t true — a person’s blood alcohol content is the greatest predictor of alcohol-induced amnesia. Consuming a high volume of alcohol in a short period of time is a frequent activity of both alcoholics and binge drinkers.

People aged 12 to 20 are the most likely population to binge drink.

One National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study from 2002 found half of 800 students surveyed had blacked out at least once in their life, and of those who had drunk in the past year, 40% said they had a blackout. Another study revealed 12% of teens who drank in the two weeks following high school graduation had experienced a blackout.

Young woman drinking in stairwellDrinking statistics show at least one half of all violent crimes involve alcohol consumption, either by the perpetrator, victim or both. Two of the most common crimes that involve teens and alcohol are automobile crashes and sexual assault and rape.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 high school-aged teens drinks and drives, and one in five teen drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their system at the time of the crash.

For many who drink so much they blackout, there is a high risk they could “wake up” to the news that they killed someone while they were blacked out.

Additionally, alcohol is the most popular date rape drug. Heavy drinking is one of the top predictors of sexual assault on campus, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and women who drink more than they should “sometimes or often” are twice as likely to be sexual assault or rape victims than those who don’t drink.

While drinking is never the cause of sexual assault, alcohol can facilitate an assault because it lowers the drinker’s inhibitions and impairs their coordination and ability to fight back. But, perhaps even worse, people who engage in drinking until they pass out are at further risk if they don’t remember the blacked out sex — they cannot pursue legal action against the perpetrator of the assault, and they cannot get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and other health conditions.

If you notice your child has a problem with alcohol, reach out immediately. In more serious cases, an alcohol detox and a stint at inpatient alcohol rehab may be recommended for your teen.

While addiction stigma can prevent families from opening up about teen addiction, it is important to remember that addiction is a disease. Your child’s addiction is not a black mark on your parenting. There’s hope. But it starts with a call.

At TheRecoveryVillage.com, we are available to guide your family on the road to recovery. Our addiction experts are here to listen to your concerns, answer your questions and offer advice. An alcohol addiction is serious, but hope is available. Let’s overcome addiction together.

Your family’s journey to recovery is just beginning

Talk to an experienced recovery advisor today.