Drinking is so common in our society that it is not only associated with nearly every major holiday that is celebrated. It’s also become a rite of passage among those turning 21. This has led to an incredible amount of binge drinking among those who are 21 and over, but also to a lesser degree in those not even legally permitted to drink.
When too much alcohol is consumed it can lead to a blackout. These can be indicative of the early stages of alcohol poisoning. If experienced with any regularity, alcohol blackouts can also be a strong indicator of a potential alcohol use disorder. We’re going to take a deeper look at these alcohol blackouts, what causes them, and what they could mean for your physical and mental health.
What are Alcohol Blackouts?
Alcohol blackouts are gaps created in the memories of someone under considerable levels of intoxication. They are caused by drinking large amounts of alcohol, such as during binge drinking parties, or by otherwise having a sudden spike in an individual’s blood alcohol content, or BAC. There are two types of blackouts, and while one will result in fragmented memories of the occasion, the other creates a complete gap in the individual’s memory for a period.
Blackouts vs. Passing Out
While many people often use “blackout” and “passing out” in the same context, they are very different when it comes to what is happening with the body and brain. Passing out is a loss of consciousness, also called syncope, where the person loses all voluntary actions. When someone is passed out, they are unconscious, and cannot interact with their surroundings in any meaningful way.
An alcohol-induced blackout, however, is far more dangerous. Someone who has blacked out can still perform many different actions and interactions with their surroundings. During a blackout, the person who has been binge drinking may still perform complex actions such as holding a conversation, having sex, or even operating a vehicle. Their brain, however, will not reliably create or store memories of those interactions or tasks.
Types of Alcohol Blackouts
There are two types of alcohol-induced blackouts, also called anterograde amnesia, and they can be either complete or partial.
Complete blackouts, also known as en bloc blackouts, interrupt memory encoding and storage. En bloc blackouts begin when the individual passes a point where their BAC prevents the brain from devoting energy to memories, essentially entering a “survival mode” form, and will persist until the BAC drops enough for memory processes to begin working again.
Partial or fragmentary blackouts occur the same way as complete blackouts but have different results. They will consist of the individual losing much of their short-term memory. However, they can retrieve more of their memories when given the appropriate clues or stimulus. Depending on the circumstances, there may still be significant gaps in the memories, but they can recall something. This is more than can be recalled by someone who had suffered a complete blackout.
Causes and Risk Factors of Blackouts
The primary cause behind blackouts is an interruption in the brain’s normal memory encoding and retrieval process. In the early stages of alcohol poisoning, often around 0.16% to .30%, the brain cannot properly create short-term memories. During this time, short-term memories that have already been created cannot undergo transfer encoding to become long-term memories, so the full effects of a blackout may include losing memories from even earlier in the drinking episode.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or the NIAAA, states that blackouts tend to begin at blood alcohol concentrations of approximately 0.16%. This is near twice the legal limit, nationwide, for operating a vehicle. It’s commonly the result of an individual binge drinking, but in other situations, it can result from a sudden or unexpected rise in BAC. This is sometimes the result of those on certain medications, like opioids or benzodiazepines. Female hormones also create a risk of becoming intoxicated faster than male hormones, so women and men of the same body weight drinking the same amounts will result in the women becoming intoxicated faster or to a greater degree.
Blacking Out Vs. Alcohol Poisoning
Blackouting out and alcohol poisoning are both consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. They differ in severity and symptoms. A blackout is a temporary memory loss caused by alcohol consumption. During a blackout, the individual cannot recall events that occurred while intoxicated.
On the other hand, alcohol poisoning is a serious medical emergency that occurs when an individual consumes a dangerous amount of alcohol, leading to a toxic buildup of alcohol in their bloodstream. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, vomiting, seizures, slowed breathing, and loss of consciousness. In contrast, a blackout is less severe and usually resolves independently without any serious medical consequences. In summary, while both blackout and alcohol poisoning are related to excessive drinking, alcohol poisoning is a much more severe and potentially life-threatening condition compared to blackout.
What Happens To Your Body When You Blackout?
Blackouts can often result in feelings of depression, and those with missing memories from alcohol-induced blackouts may also become anxious regarding their usage or activities while blacked out. These issues can become exacerbated if there were legal issues or sexual encounters that occurred during the blackout. While these are all generally considered acute or short-term effects, continued binge drinking can create chronic or long-term occurrences.
Other long-term effects coincident with blackouts are generally associated with elevated alcohol use. If high consumption levels are continued for long periods, it can significantly damage brain tissue. This can create chronic memory issues, nerve damage, and more. One of the long-term brain damage conditions seen in heavy alcoholics is called “wet brain”.
Is Blacking Out a Sign of an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Many people who don’t drink often can experience blackouts easily since their system isn’t used to metabolizing alcohol. While blacking out isn’t necessarily a sign of alcohol addiction, it can be one of the indicators if experienced regularly.
When to Seek Treatment
Blackouts could be considered indicative of a problem with alcoholism or an AUD if accompanied by other signs, such as:
- Trying to drink less, but being unable to do so
- Being unable to control your own alcohol intake
- Craving alcohol consistently
- Experiencing negative effects of alcohol and continuing to drink
- Spending greater amounts of time thinking about drinking or recovering from drinking
- Reducing time spent on other hobbies or recreation in favor of drinking more
If you have been experiencing any of these signs consistently, there may be a potential AUD at work. Speaking with a professional can be the first step to improving your health and safety.
How to Get Help For Alcohol Use Disorder
If you or someone you love is experiencing blackouts regularly, it may be time to speak to a professional about getting some help. Contact Agape today to speak to an addiction specialist in a confidential environment, and create a personalized treatment plan that can be the foundation for lasting sobriety.