Learn / Blacking Out Drunk: Understanding the Risks, Causes, and Prevention
“If recreational drugs were tools, alcohol would be a sledgehammer.” – NCBI article
Some hail getting “blackout drunk” as the apex drinking experience: a testament to how wild the party was or how disinhibited they felt. But rather than being a story to tell, getting blackout drunk can put you on a dangerous path—one of crime, danger, and life-changing risks.
Blacking out drunk means you have a “blackout” period in your memory. You won’t remember anything that happened around you or to you when you were “blacked”. You’re still awake when you black out, just not making memories. That’s because alcohol can block the transference of memories into long-term storage.
Alcohol can cause 2 types of blackouts: partial and complete. If you have a complete blackout period, you won’t remember anything. Your blackout will simply feel like a blank expanse in time. Partial blackouts mean you can remember a few things, like who drove you home and where your purse might be. Physical or emotional cues can also trigger the memories you made in a partial blackout.
Both types of blackouts keep you from forming and recollecting memories.
Blackouts affect an area of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories form and move into long-term storage. Too much alcohol keeps this transfer from happening. Just 1-2 drinks can start the memory-losing process.
Alcohol disrupts the communicative chemical activity in your hippocampus. That disruption between neurons prevents the hippocampus from storing events and memories as they happen. Blackouts don’t affect past memories or the ones you make when sober, only the memories made with too much alcohol in your system.
You may seem alert and able to hold a conversation when blacked out. But any interactions you have won’t stay in your memory for longer than a few minutes.
The severity of your blackout usually depends on your blood-alcohol level—the higher it is, the more complete your blackout. Because of this, some groups are more susceptible to blacking out, including women, young college students, and binge drinkers.
With generally smaller bodies, women are more likely to black out than men. Women also have less of an enzyme in their stomach that breaks down alcohol. And, they’re more likely to drink wine or mixed drinks instead of beer, which has comparatively less alcohol.
College students and other young drinkers also experience blackouts more often. It’s usually because they’re not used to drinking (especially in high amounts), leading to accidental blackouts. Similarly, binge drinkers, or someone who drinks a lot in a short period of time, may rapidly raise their blood-alcohol level and black out more often.
You can look for some of these signs of blackout drinking if someone seems blackout drunk. But be aware: you won’t always know if someone’s blackout, yourself included. Though surprising, your friend may seem fine and have most of their motor and cognitive functioning intact.
What you can look for is problems with their memory. Though everyone shows cognitive impairment when they’re drunk, like seeming spaced out, they’ll usually still have some of their memory intact. If you suspect someone’s blackout drunk, take them home as soon as you can.
Someone who’s blackout drunk may repeat questions, seem confused, or forget the names/faces/information they just learned about.
To test their memory-storing ability, try asking your friend to name 3 items: fruits, for example. Then, a couple of minutes later, ask what fruits they named. If they’re not blacked, they’ll eventually remember what fruits they named—even if they need time to think or slur their words.
Your friend may repeat the same story because they don’t remember already telling it. They may also tell you the same thing repeatedly throughout the night, like they’ve spotted your mutual friend nearby.
If you tell your friend they’ve already told you the same thing multiple times, they may seem confused. They may not even believe you. They’ll likely have no idea their memory has started to go—even if they’re concerned about that, their worries will soon fade.
If someone seems drunk, look for stumbling, nonsensical speech, poor coordination, slurred speech, and sleepiness. This could indicate they’re heavily drunk and in a blackout state.
If your friend, or anyone else, seems blackout drunk, keep a close eye on them. Since they’re mentally and physically impaired, they could easily get into trouble. Make sure they don’t drive, even if they seem “fine”. And make sure they don’t go off alone with anyone—someone could try to take advantage of their impairment.
And ask your friend to stay around you. If they can’t remember to stay by you, you might need to shadow them.
Step away from the situation if you’re able and they’re willing. This could mean going home if you’re at a bar or going to a safe room and lying down if you’re at a party. Never let them drive—and call a taxi or Uber if you don’t feel safe driving, either.
Getting blackout drunk puts you at risk of physical and sexual violence. You may unwittingly go along with whatever someone else wants—even if that’s stealing, vandalizing someone’s house, or sleeping with someone you never planned to.
If you did sleep with someone, you may not remember if you gave consent, if your partner was violent, or if you used protection. And if something terrible did occur, not knowing would prevent you from getting the medical care you need. That applies to both physical and sexual assaults.
Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1.800.799.7233 or text “START” to 88788
Crisis Hotline: Call or Text 988
After blacking out, you could wake up and not know where you are, how you got there, or how to get home. You might wake up a few blocks from your house or on the other side of your city—blackouts make almost anything possible.
You could get into trouble in a blackout state. Being impaired mentally and physically, you might bend easily to peer pressure. Or, doing something illegal may suddenly seem fun, like stealing. Then, you could wind up in legal trouble.
Blackouts commonly happen after high-intensity drinking, when you have at least twice as many drinks per hour more than binge drinking (8+ drinks in 2 hours for women, 10+ for men). Binge and high-intensity drinking lead to blackouts because your blood-alcohol level rises too fast.
Some drugs, like sleep or anti-anxiety medications, can cause blackouts at a lower blood-alcohol level. Keeping aware of your medications can help you prevent getting blackout drunk.
You can prevent blackout drinking by drinking in moderation. Set a limit for yourself, like one drink per hour. Be sure to eat a full meal before drinking and start the night hydrated. And drink slowly—take sips instead of gulps. Avoid chugging, shotgunning, or joining in other drinking games.
You can also try staggering your alcoholic drinks. For example, having a glass of wine, a big cup of water, then a smaller glass of wine. Plan for how you’re going to get home, too. Either bring a friend who’s not drinking or schedule an Uber in advance.
Avoid drinking in unfamiliar situations, too. Nerves could cause you to drink multiple drinks much faster than usual. And, only drink what you buy or bring yourself. Never take a drink from a stranger.
One way to help a friend or family member struggling with their drinking is by noticing how much they drink. If they frequently black out, binge drink, or drink whenever they can, you can consider starting a conversation about how they’re feeling and how alcohol fits into their life.
You can start the conversation early by talking to your kids/teens about blackout drinking and its consequences. But you can emphasize the risks of blackout drinking with someone of any age. You can also pass along tips to avoid blackout drinking, how to quit drinking, and make drinking a safer experience for those you love.
If your friend or family member reveals they’ve been struggling with drinking, you can share these resources with them:
You can also offer yourself as a resource of support. Though you can’t make anyone get help, you can offer a listening ear and be someone to walk beside as your loved one begins their recovery journey.
To learn more, you can browse our list of rehabs treating alcohol addiction to see photos, reviews, insurance information, and more.
White, Aaron M. “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain.” Alcohol Research & Health, vol. 27, no. 2, 2003, pp. 186–96. PubMed Central, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6668891/.
Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/interrupted-memories-alcohol-induced-blackouts. Accessed 7 Aug. 2023.
“Alcohol and Blackouts.” HSE.Ie, https://www2.hse.ie/living-well/alcohol/health/physical-health/blackouts/. Accessed 7 Aug. 2023.
Drinking to Blackout: What Happens When Young Brains Get Boozed - Penn Medicine. https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2017/june/drinking-to-blackout-what-happens-when-young-brains-get-boozed. Accessed 7 Aug. 2023.
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