What Are Alcohol Blackouts? Causes, Symptoms & Risks
Last Updated: November 1, 2023
Heavy alcohol use can lead to problems like alcohol blackouts, which cause permanent memory blanks when you were drinking.
Alcohol is a part of life for many people, helping them relax, socialize and party. Excessive alcohol use can, however, lead to problems like alcohol blackouts. Blackouts cause permanent memory blanks during the time you were drinking and can have several negative consequences. Anyone who drinks heavily or binge drinks should understand what alcohol blackouts are and what causes them.
What Is Blackout Drinking?
Many people instinctively assume that blackout drinking is falling unconscious due to alcohol, but this is not the case. Instead, blackouts occur when someone drinking remains conscious but cannot recall events during intoxication. It’s as if a segment of their memory has permanently vanished, leaving a blank space in their recollection.
How Blacking Out Affects the Brain
The brain is especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol. The hippocampus, a region vital for memory formation, is particularly impacted by excessive alcohol consumption. When overwhelmed by alcohol, the hippocampus struggles to create new memories, leading to the phenomenon of blacking out.
Blackouts ultimately keep short-term memories from being converted into long-term memories. This means that with a blackout, you’re not losing memories; you’re actually never forming them in the first place. The severity of a blackout depends on how high the amount of alcohol in your blood was at the time of the blackout.
Symptoms of Alcohol Blackouts
The main symptom of an alcohol blackout is the inability to remember things that happened while you were drinking, even if you try hard to recall them. Someone with a partial blackout may be able to remember fragments of what occurred. A complete blackout, however, will be permanent, and it will be impossible to recall even pieces of what happened.
Because your short-term memory works during a blackout, you can still remember things that happened a few minutes ago while actively having the blackout. It is difficult to tell if someone is blacking out unless you ask them to recall something that happened several minutes prior during the blackout period.
What Are the Causes of Alcohol Blackouts?
The sole cause of alcohol blackouts is a high level of alcohol in the bloodstream. The higher the concentration of alcohol in the blood, the greater the chance of a blackout. While blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels are the sole cause of a blackout, the exact BAC needed to cause one will vary for different people and even for the same individuals at different times.
While alcohol blackouts are caused solely by a high BAC, several factors can influence how high your BAC becomes while drinking. The amount of alcohol you drink within a specific time frame is typically the most important factor; however, other factors that slow alcohol metabolism or augment the effects of alcohol can increase your risk of blacking out.
Risks of Blackout Drinking
The memory gap that blackout drinking causes isn’t necessarily dangerous alone. However, drinking enough alcohol to blackout can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning, injury and other negative effects. A blackout is only truly dangerous if you are engaged in a task that requires remembering something for more than a few minutes.
While blacking out isn’t overly dangerous, it can carry several negative consequences. The inability to remember what you have done can have serious implications if you did something illegal, had intercourse, got injured or made an important decision while inebriated.
How To Avoid Alcohol Blackouts
The best way to avoid alcohol blackouts is not to use alcohol or to only use it in moderation. If you use alcohol, several tips can help reduce the risk of having a BAC level that could cause a blackout. These include:
- Making sure you space your drinks out
- Avoiding high-proof beverages
- Not drinking on an empty stomach
- Not combining alcohol with other substances
- Tracking how much you’ve had to drink
- Staying to a fixed limit when drinking
You should also consider any health effects on your alcohol metabolism. For example, someone with liver disease may metabolize alcohol more slowly and have a higher BAC level after a few drinks than someone without liver problems.
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FAQs on Alcohol Blackouts
Is blackout drinking the same as passing out?
No, blackout drinking involves memory loss while being conscious, while passing out means becoming unconscious. Someone blacking out will still be awake and able to interact normally while experiencing a blackout.
Are occasional blackouts a cause for concern?
Even infrequent blackouts can indicate you are misusing alcohol and should be taken seriously. Someone with blackouts should seriously consider cutting back their alcohol use or seeking help for addiction.
Can you recover memories lost during a blackout?
Memories lost during a blackout are irretrievable as they were never stored in the brain. No matter what you do, recovering memories from a blackout will typically be impossible.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 16, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” February, 2023. Accessed August 16, 2023.
DiBello, Angelo M.; Hatch, Melissa R.; & et al. “Opportunities for reducing college drinking: The roles of drinking attitudes and blackout experience.” Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research. June 4, 2021. Accessed August 16, 2023.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” April 14, 2022. Accessed August 16, 2023.