Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Precursor of Addiction

bottles of alcohol

Updated on March 23rd, 2021

Any amount of alcohol use can affect a person’s memory and have harmful effects on the brain. However, alcohol-induced blackouts should be a major cause for concern, especially among people who experience them frequently.

What are Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

Alcohol-induced blackouts are periods of memory loss during which a person is capable of engaging in normal behaviors but has no memory of later. These types of blackouts are caused by episodes of excessive drinking.1

Unlike losing consciousness due to a period of heavy drinking, a person who experiences an alcohol-induced blackout will still be able to do things like eat, carry on a conversation, or purchase items at a store. The fact that a person can also engage in emotionally-charged activities like arguments, physical fights, or sexual intercourse makes alcohol-induced blackouts all the more dangerous.

What Are the Signs of a Blackout?

It’s not always easy to tell when someone is experiencing a blackout because they may act normal but won’t remember what they did or said the next day. However, some common signs that someone may be experiencing a blackout include:

  • Drinking a lot in a short amount of time or drinking heavily without drinking water or eating any food
  • Repeatedly forgetting where they are or what they are doing
  • Being unable to hold a conversation or repeating themselves often
  • Participating in risky behaviors that they normally wouldn’t

Sometimes, a person may also experience what’s known as a brownout. In these instances, the person may remember some things that they said or did but not all of them. Or they may remember certain things when they are prompted about them but not otherwise.

What Causes Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

Alcohol-induced blackouts are caused by excessive amounts of drinking, heavy drinking on an empty stomach, or binge drinking, which causes your blood alcohol levels to rise very quickly. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.” For men, this is typically five drinks in two hours or four drinks in two hours for women.2

Although heavy drinking is often the cause of alcohol-induced blackouts, this is not always the case. There are other factors that play a role too, such as:

  • Gender: Women have a greater likelihood of experiencing alcohol-induced blackouts, as they usually weigh less, have a lower amount of water in the body, and have fewer enzymes in the gut that help break down the alcohol.3 Women may also be more likely to reduce their caloric intake from food to compensate for a large number of calories they consume while drinking.
  • Drinking habits: Gulping drinks and drinking large amounts of alcohol on an empty stomach is also associated with blackouts. Additionally, social drinkers are more likely to experience blackouts.
  • Family history: One study in Addictive Behaviors found that men with a maternal history of alcohol problems were more likely to blackout than those who didn’t have a similar family history on the mother’s side.3 Prenatal alcohol exposure is also associated with an increased risk of alcohol-induced blackouts.1
  • Genetics: Recent research also suggests that some people may be more likely to experience blackouts because they are genetically more vulnerable to alcohol-induced memory loss.1

brain scanWhich Part of the Brain do Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Affect?

Alcohol impairs the functioning of the hippocampus, which is critically involved in the formulation of memories for events. It can also impair the frontal lobe, which affects a person’s ability to plan, make decisions, and control impulses.1

According to the NIAAA, there are two different types of alcohol-induced blackouts: a partial blackout and a complete alcohol blackout.

Partial Alcohol BlackoutComplete Alcohol Blackout
  • Typically occurs after consuming a small amount of alcohol.
  • Forgetting parts of a conversation, names of friends or common personal information like a phone number is common.
  • People may be able to remember what happened during a partial blackout.
  • The individual can perform basic functions like talking and walking.
  • Judgment and decision-making are impaired.
  • Behavior is often unpredictable.
  • Memory loss can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days.
  • People have no memory of what happened during a complete blackout.

What Are Negative Effects of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

There are several emotional effects of alcohol-induced blackouts. If you’ve blacked out after a period of excessive drinking, you’ve probably experienced some of the following negative emotions as a result.

  • Frustration that you can’t remember what happened.
  • Embarrassment because you said or did something inappropriate or humiliating.
  • Distress over the potentially dangerous activities you participated in, like unprotected sex or criminal activity.
  • Anxiety because you could have hurt yourself or others during your alcohol-induced blackout.

What Are the Physical Dangers of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

Excessive alcohol abuse has also been linked to several negative consequences like:

  • Engaging in multiple forms of risky sexual behaviors (particularly among college students)
  • Being a victim of sexual harassment and/or rape
  • Engaging in criminal behavior like theft or vandalism
  • Getting into arguments or physical altercations
  • Getting physically hurt or injuring someone else
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors or committing suicide

The dangers of alcohol-induced blackouts are not only harmful to your mental and physical health, but they can also be deadly.

Does Blacking Out Damage Your Brain?

There isn’t any research that correlates blackouts to brain damage. Instead, alcoholic blackouts are a symptom of drinking too much. Heavy drinking, however, CAN cause brain damage. People who experience blackouts after drinking do so because they drank more alcohol than their bodies could process. Individuals who drink heavily and often will have a higher tolerance for alcohol, meaning they will have to drink more before they experience a blackout. This can become very dangerous because they may be more likely to drink until they suffer from alcohol poisoning (which is when their BAC reaches 0.3).

empty bottles of alcohol

How Common Are Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students?

Alcohol-induced blackouts are more common among college-age drinkers, as they are more likely to binge drink or participate in drinking games that encourage excessive alcohol consumption. One survey of college students found that 51 percent of students who had consumed alcohol reported blacking out and 40 percent had experienced a blackout at some point in the year before the survey.1

Another study found that sexual-risk taking among college students was associated with alcohol-induced blackouts, particularly for women. The results of the study found that women, although they typically drink less than men per occasion, were at a higher risk for experiencing unwanted or unsafe sexual advances than their peers who had not recently experienced a blackout or men who had.4

College students may also suffer from other negative consequences of alcohol abuse, such as:

  • Lower GPA
  • More class absences
  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety

Is a Blackout a Sign of Alcohol Use Disorder?

People who experience blackouts are often binge drinking but someone who occasionally binge drinks isn’t necessarily an alcoholic. However, people who drink heavily often are more likely to experience frequent blackouts and suffer from alcohol use disorder. If they continue to drink until they blackout, they also have an increased risk of suffering alcohol poisoning or death from drinking too much. If you frequently blackout when drinking, that might be a sign that you need to re-evaluate your drinking habits. You may also want to talk to your doctor or counselor about your drinking habits if you feel you may need help to quit drinking.

How to Prevent Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

The best way to prevent alcohol-induced blackouts is to stop drinking alcohol. By removing alcoholic beverages from your life, you’ll eliminate your risk for experiencing a blackout and you’ll also get rid of all the negative consequences as a result.

If you try to quit drinking alcohol but you are unable, you may be suffering from alcohol addiction. Some of the signs that you may be addicted to alcohol are:

  • Trying but being unable to quit drinking
  • Spending the majority of your time drinking or recovering from hangovers and blackouts
  • Being embarrassed by your drinking habits or hiding your drinking habits from friends and family members
  • Feeling like you can’t function normally without a drink
  • Experiencing withdrawal when the effects of alcohol wear off
  • Using life events as an excuse to drink

Will My Memory Improve If I Stop Drinking?

Yes, if you’ve heavily abused alcohol for months or years, your memory should improve after several months of not drinking. Similarly, if you keep drinking heavily, you’ll likely continue to experience blackouts and your memory problems are likely to get worse.

Do You Experience Chronic Alcohol-Induced Blackouts? It’s Time to Get Help

The occurrence of alcohol-induced blackouts is a primary indicator of alcoholism (also referred to as alcohol use disorder or AUD).1 If you or a loved one experiences alcohol-induced blackouts often, it may be time to seek out professional addiction treatment. Overcoming alcohol addiction is very difficult on your own, especially if you don’t have a solid support system. Enrolling in an alcohol addiction treatment program can help you overcome your addiction for good.

Alcohol Detox Can Help You Start Living a Sober Lifestyle

A comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program should begin with medical detox. An inpatient alcohol detox program works by clearing your mind and body of the toxins that are associated with alcohol abuse. A medical team will help you through alcohol withdrawal by treating uncomfortable symptoms with medications and gradually bringing you down into a state of sobriety.

Once you are stable and sober, you may also participate in individual or group counseling, for a well-rounded alcohol detox experience that prepares you physically and emotionally for rehab.

Alcohol Rehab Can Help You Sustain Long-Lasting Sobriety

Upon the completion of detox, you’ll be given recommendations for ongoing addiction treatment designed to address the underlying issues of your drinking, such as trauma, stress, or mental health problems. In most instances, detox staff recommend that clients continue their treatment with an alcohol rehab program, which may be an inpatient or outpatient program.

During alcohol rehab, you’ll receive cognitive behavioral therapy and other types of evidence-based therapies for addiction treatment. This type of care will empower you to establish life skills, gain confidence, and start making behavioral changes that will help you stay sober.

No two alcohol rehab programs are exactly alike, but finding one that provides comprehensive, individualized care is key to your success in sobriety. Most alcohol rehab centers also accept insurance or will work with you to accept other types of payment, including:

  • Third-party healthcare loans
  • Medical credit cards
  • Scholarships or grants

If your employer offers it, you can also use Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits to get access to an alcohol rehab that suits your needs.

If alcohol-induced blackouts have become a regular part of your routine, your health and your life may be in danger. Contact Briarwood Detox Center today to learn more about our medical alcohol detox program or to enroll in a program at our Houston or Austin detox center.

References:

  1. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm
  2. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030646031500057X
  4. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00224499.2016.1228797?scroll=top&needAccess=true&
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