Pop culture is full of examples of characters waking up after a wild night of partying and having to call a friend to find out what happened the evening before. The person on the other end of the line fills in hilarious shenanigans that occurred, while the person who got drunk cringes, and a laugh track is heard in the background. While it might seem funny on a television show, this character has experienced a blackout, and in the real world, that’s not something to laugh about.  

What Causes Alcohol-induced Blackouts?
When someone experiences an alcohol-related blackout, their brain has a temporary inability to transfer memories from short-term to long-term storage. Blackouts are most likely to occur in people whose blood alcohol levels exceed 0.16 percent but can actually happen at much lower levels if a person is on medications to help them sleep or address anxiety. 

Why Blacking Out is a Red Flag
A person who has experienced a blackout has changed how their brain processes memories. That alone is a scary situation. In addition, the person may not even realize they have experienced a blackout unless they talk to someone who was with them during that time.

In addition, having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) high enough to cause a blackout means that the person also had a loss of impulse control, attention, decision-making ability, and judgment. They would have also been at heightened risk for injuries due to impaired coordination and may have suffered from alcohol poisoning. Long-term drinking at the level that creates blackouts can also lead to long-term damage to a person’s brain and other organs, as well as alcohol use disorder. 

Blackouts can increase the risk of a person engaging in harmful and even life-threatening situations, such as:

  • Trying to drive drunk
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Using illicit substances
  • Engaging in unlawful activities
  • Spending money irresponsibly

Types of Blackouts
There are two types of alcohol-induced blackouts. Most common is the “fragmentary blackout,” in which some parts of the memory will exist but not others. This is also sometimes referred to as a grayout or brownout. Sometimes, when the person talks to other people who fill in missing bits of their memory, they will be able to recall things they didn’t at first retain.

The other type of blackout is an “en bloc” black out, in which the person has complete amnesia of an entire, hours-long time period. These memories often cannot be recovered later, and it will feel like the events that transpired during that time never happened.

Blacking Out Versus Passing Out
While both blacking out and passing out can occur during the same episode of drinking and both are signs of a potentially dangerous level of alcohol consumption, blacking out refers to a person not retaining memories that occurred while they were conscious, while passing out refers to the person falling asleep or losing consciousness as a result of consuming too much alcohol.

Is Blacking Out a Sign of Addiction?
While experiencing a single episode of blacking out is not indicative that a person has alcohol use disorder, it does mean that they have consumed more alcohol than their body was able to process. Engaging in the level of alcohol consumption that leads to blackouts on a regular basis, however, is a warning sign that the person may be developing an addiction to alcohol.

How Can I Tell if Someone is Experiencing a Blackout?
Unfortunately, not everyone shows the same signs when they are in the midst of a blackout, especially if a person has a high tolerance due to frequent heavy drinking, but some indicators can include:

  • Consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, especially without consuming water or eating
  • Repeating themselves while talking or being unable to follow the conversation
  • Not showing concerns for the thoughts or feelings of other people
  • Being easily distracted
  • Not remembering where they are or what they are doing
  • Engaging in dangerous or risky behaviors they wouldn’t normally consider if they were sober

If you have questions about blackouts or concerns that you or a loved one may be at risk for alcohol use disorder, contact our team at Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA. Our compassionate professionals can provide answers and support.