What does blacking out mean?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines blackouts as memory gaps caused by alcohol intoxication. Drink too much at once, and you could experience one.
Frequent blackouts indicate a pattern of unsafe drinking that can lead to alcoholism.
Symptoms of Being Blackout Drunk
Unlike passing out, people experiencing a blackout are still conscious and making decisions, which can be dangerous.
Common symptoms of an alcohol blackout are similar to those associated with severe intoxication. They include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Poor decision-making
- Slow and deliberate movement
- Extreme friendliness
- Sweaty skin
- Droopy or red eyes
The main difference between intoxication and a blackout involves the next day. Some people who are blackout drunk remember nothing that happened while they were intoxicated. Others remember just bits and pieces.
Why Does Blacking Out Happen?
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to inhibit long-term potentiation (LTP). When functioning normally, this process strengthens the connections between neurons in the hippocampus, which aids learning and memory.
The presence of large amounts of alcohol cuts the presence of LTP in half, which means the brain does not move short-term memory into long-term memory until alcohol metabolizes out of the brain.
Blackouts typically occur when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.16%, more than twice the legal limit to drive in most of the U.S.
Is Blacking Out an Alcohol Overdose?
A blackout is not the same as an alcohol overdose. People experiencing an overdose have additional symptoms, such as vomiting and severe sedation. If you keep drinking during a blackout, you could experience an overdose.
Factors That Increase the Chances of Blacking Out
Anyone who drinks too much can experience a blackout. Binge drinking is often to blame. Women who consume four or more drinks, or men who consume five or more drinks, within about two hours are binge drinking. This practice raises BAC dramatically.
Other factors that increase blackout risks include the following:
- Being female because women tend to have lower body water to dilute alcohol
- Smoking, which often indicates abuse of other substances
- Having friends who also drink a lot and abuse other drugs
- Combining drugs, like prescription painkillers or anti-anxiety medications
- Impulsivity and sensation-seeking behaviors
Tips for Avoiding Blacking Out
The best way to avoid a blackout is to limit your drinking. If you don’t consume too much alcohol, you’ll form new memories easily and avoid serious blackout consequences.
Other tips include the following:
- Stay hydrated. Drink one nonalcoholic beverage for every alcoholic version you consume. You’ll feel full, and you’ll consume alcohol slower.
- Watch the clock. Drinking quickly is an easy way to get blackout drunk. Pace yourself. Don’t allow yourself to consume multiple drinks in a short span.
- Eat instead. If you’re struggling to slow down your drinking, snack on hydrating foods like fruit.
- Find something else to do. If you’re in a bar, strike up a game of pool or darts. If you’re drinking at home, go for a walk or a bike ride. Choosing activities that keep your hands busy can limit how much you drink.
- Use the buddy system. Find someone you trust, and stay together. Agree on your drinking limits and encourage one another to stick to them.
How to Help Someone Who Is Blackout Drunk
People in the middle of a blackout may continue drinking, make poor choices, or get hurt. You can help them stay safe while their bodies process the alcohol they’ve consumed.
Follow these steps:
- Remove the alcohol. If you’re in a bar, tell the bartender to stop serving the person. If you’re at a party or in a private home, remove the person from the spot where alcohol is present.
- Try hydration. Encourage the person to sip water or a rehydration drink. Slow sips are best, especially if the person is queasy.
- Keep still. Offer a comfortable chair for resting. If the person passes out or falls asleep, put them on their side.
- Remain present. Don’t leave the person alone. Stay in the room and ensure the person keeps breathing.
Is It Dangerous to Black Out?
During a blackout, you are fully awake, reacting to what happens and making decisions. The reduced inhibitions and poor decision-making associated with being drunk can cause you to do dangerous things, but you will not remember what happened.
Frequent blackouts are linked to other consequences like these:[2,5]
- Missing work or school
- Having a lower GPA in school
- Getting an injury from an accident
- Being hospitalized
- Being arrested for drunk driving
- Losing money or harming relationships
Since blackouts are associated with binge drinking, you are more likely to have impaired motor coordination, lowered inhibitions, and poor impulse control. You are more at risk of engaging in drunk driving, unprotected sex, or other dangerous behaviors.[2,5]
Consequences of Blacking Out
Drinking too much alcohol even once can lead to a blackout. You could experience serious consequences due to that episode, including the following:[2,4,5]
|Short-Term Consequences||Long-Term Consequences|
|Sexual assault||Unwanted pregnancy|
|Slips, trips, and falls||Time away from work to recover from injuries|
|Drunk driving arrests||Higher insurance rates|
|Damaged relationships||Divorce or lost friendships|
Dangers of Binge Drinking
Many people binge drink and do not realize it’s dangerous. Since binge drinking and blackouts are common, many don’t realize how risky this habit can be.
One in six adults in the United States binge drinks four times per month, consuming seven drinks on average per binge. This problem is most common among people ages 18 to 34, but older adults frequently binge drink. Binge drinking is also more common among people with higher incomes and more education.
Long-term binge drinking has been linked to a reduced ability to learn new things, especially verbally. Binge drinking is also associated with altered brain development in adolescents.
One in six adults in the United States binge drinks four times per month, consuming seven drinks on average per binge.
Do Some People Black Out Easier Than Others?
Drink more alcohol than your brain can process, and you can experience a blackout. But your alcohol tolerance can be influenced by many factors, increasing (or decreasing) your blackout risks.
Issues that contribute to your alcohol tolerance include the following:[7-9]
- Genetics: Some people can process alcohol quickly due to their genetic makeup. Others need more time.
- Alcohol history: Drinking frequently can increase your alcohol tolerance, allowing you to drink more while experiencing fewer effects
- Sex: Women process alcohol slower than men do.
- Size: Larger people can drink more alcohol than their smaller counterparts.
- Health: Pre-existing conditions that impair core organs, like your liver and kidneys, can allow alcohol to linger longer.
Does Blacking Out Mean You Are an Alcoholic?
Alcohol abuse can lead to blackouts. While they don’t necessarily mean someone is an alcoholic, frequent blackouts indicate a pattern of unsafe drinking that can lead to alcohol addiction.
Experiencing one blackout from drinking too much means you did something dangerous, but it does not mean you have a problem with alcohol. However, if you experience blackouts regularly, you are drinking too much and too often.
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Treatment options for alcohol abuse include inpatient care (where you move into a facility) and outpatient care (where you remain living at home). Either could be a good option for you.
Outpatient treatment for alcohol addiction allows you to maintain your connection to home and family while you work on your addiction. But inpatient care lets you leave triggers and stresses behind to focus on your healing.
Your doctor can help you understand what treatment type is right for you and your recovery.
- Interrupted memories: Alcohol-induced blackouts. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed July 4, 2023.
- Intoxication. California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Accessed July 4, 2023.
- Dryden J. The biology behind alcohol-induced blackouts. Washington University in St. Louis. Published July 6, 2011. Accessed July 5, 2023.
- Understanding binge drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published March 2023. Accessed July 5, 2023.
- Binge drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 14, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2023.
- Parada, M., Corral, M., Caamaño-Isorna, F., Mota, N., Crego, A., Holguín, S.R. and Cadaveira, F. (2011), Binge drinking and declarative memory in university students. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35: 1475-1484.
- Morozova TV, Mackay TF, Anholt RR. Genetics and genomics of alcohol sensitivity. Mol Genet Genomics. 2014;289(3):253-269.
- Johnson EC, St Pierre CL, Meyers JL, et al. The Genetic Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Aspects of Problem Drinking in an Ascertained Sample. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2019;43(6):1113-1125.
- White AM. Gender differences in the epidemiology of alcohol use and related harms in the United States. Alcohol Res. 2020;40(2):01. Published 2020 Oct 29.