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The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines alcohol blackouts as gaps in a person's memory for events that occurred while intoxicated.1
These gaps happen when enough alcohol is consumed to block the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage.
A person experiencing an alcoholic blackout may appear to be functioning normally but have no subsequent recollection of the events during the blackout. They may not even appear to have been very intoxicated at the time.
In addition to impacting memory, getting blackout drunk can impair balance, motor coordination, decision-making, and many other body functions.
There are two different types of blackouts:
For young adults, getting to the point of 'blackout' while drinking alcohol is common. In a study of over 1,000 college students, more than two-thirds – 66.4% – reported experiencing at least one blackout.
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Blacking out while drinking usually happens accidentally. If you've experienced blackouts, here are some tips to consider the next time you're drinking:
Drinking water in between alcoholic drinks will help limit your alcohol intake. It also helps lower your BAC levels because it dilutes the amount of alcohol absorbed into your bloodstream.
In addition, drinking more water prevents dehydration. This gives your liver time to metabolize the alcohol you've consumed.
Drinking on an empty stomach is another way to get yourself blackout drunk. Your body absorbs alcohol much quicker if you haven't eaten for a long time. So, if you plan to have a few drinks, eat something before you start drinking.
It's also recommended to eat while drinking alcohol to prevent blackouts. Eating a snack while drinking lines your stomach with food, slowing alcohol absorption. It also helps you space out drinks.
Reducing your alcohol intake per session will reduce the chances of blacking out. It's recommended to consume no more than two standard drinks within a single sitting.
While it's not always possible to abstain from alcohol completely, it helps reduce the risk of blackouts.
If it's impossible to eliminate alcohol consumption, there are many ways to cut back. For instance, you can choose to drink alcohol with a lower ABV. Or, you can choose to only drink on certain days of the week or month.
Blackouts are almost always associated with binge drinking. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that increases a person's BAC to 0.08 percent or higher. Blackouts usually begin at blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of about 0.16 percent and higher.
This increased blood alcohol level typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men — in about 2 hours. This level of blood alcohol content causes a significant cognitive ability impairment, making blackouts especially dangerous.
It can be hard to recognize when you or a friend are in danger of blacking out. However, there are some signs that people may be reaching a dangerous level of intoxication.
Keep in mind that many factors affect your body's response to alcohol. Body size, alcohol tolerance, and whether you ate earlier are a few of the most significant factors. This will affect the number of drinks it takes to reach these stages.
Here are some symptoms of progressing drunkenness, sourced from the NHS:
1 to 2 drinks
4 to 6 drinks
8 to 9 drinks
10 to 12 drinks
12 or more drinks
Note: These numbers are based on average size and tolerance.
During a blackout, a person is awake, but their brain is not creating new memories.
It isn't always apparent if someone is in a blackout. Anything someone can do while drunk, they can do while blacked out – they just won't remember it the next day.
During a blackout, people remember events before their BAC reached very high levels. Blacked-out people can carry on conversations and recall stories from earlier in the evening while intoxicated.
In addition, depending on how much the person drank, they can quickly transition from a blackout to losing consciousness or alcohol overdose.
Someone who is blacked out may have the following symptoms of alcohol intoxication:
Blacking out while drinking alcohol can cause many immediate consequences. Blackouts directly increase your chances of risky behavior.
This can lead to any of the following short-term effects:
Experiencing a single blackout doesn’t necessarily indicate that a person has a drinking problem. However, blacking out often increases the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or other health problems. If you experience blackouts regularly, you may have a drinking problem.
Long-term effects of alcohol use disorder can be severe and life-threatening, including:
If you or someone you know is addicted to alcohol, you should seek help. Many types of addiction treatment are available for those suffering from an alcohol use disorder.
Here are the people who are at a higher risk of blacking out:
Women are at an increased risk of blacking out. On average, women weigh less than males and, pound for pound, have less water in their bodies. They tend to reach higher peak BAC levels than males with each drink and do so more quickly.
Young adults and college students tend to binge drink more often than adults. One study surveyed 772 college students to learn about their drinking habits. It found that 51 percent had blacked out at some point.
Students that blacked out often experienced adverse effects, including:
Certain medications like antidepressants and "z-drugs” can increase your risk of blacking out if you take them while drinking. Mixing these drugs with alcohol can cause serious side effects. It can also affect how your body processes alcohol, leading to faster blackouts.
If you think someone is passed out, check in by trying to wake them up by lightly shaking them or calling their name. You should ensure they're not in a dangerous place where someone could harm or take advantage of them.
Check if they've lost consciousness from the alcohol or if they're merely sleeping. If the person is unresponsive, or if their breathing is very shallow, they're throwing up, or they're cold and blue, they may have alcohol poisoning, so you should call 911 immediately.
If the person is acting aggressively or has had a fall or significant injury, you should call 911 immediately. Any time you’re worried, take them to the ER. Seek immediate medical care if you believe a person may have alcohol poisoning or is suffering from a drug overdose.
Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center.
These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to medical monitoring.
The first step of an inpatient program is commonly detoxification. Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer.
Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.
Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) provide similar services to intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). These include medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other customized therapies. However, in a PHP, you return home to sleep.
Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program. PHPs accept new patients and people who have completed an inpatient program and still need intensive treatment.
Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient or partial hospitalization programs.
These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.
They’re best for people who are motivated to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities. Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program.
Sometimes, professionals may use medications in alcohol addiction treatment.
Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions.
Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone are the most common medications for AUD. When combined with other evidence-based therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.
Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are open to anyone with a substance abuse problem.
They’re peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. Support groups can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.
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