Are Blackouts A Sign Of Alcoholism?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Is Blacking Out a Symptom of Alcoholism?

Are you concerned that your recent blackouts are linked with the amount of alcohol you’re consuming? If you’re routinely blacking out due to alcohol consumption, this is a sign that you are abusing alcohol. Blacking out puts you at risk for physical injury, accidents, and long-term medical problems. Here’s what you need to know about alcohol-related blackouts. 

What Is a Blackout From Drinking?

The easiest way to describe an alcohol-related blackout is to call it a period of intoxication with a big question mark next to it. During a blackout, a person consumes enough alcohol to temporarily impair or block the ability of the brain to transfer short-term memories to long-term memories. When a person “comes to” following a blackout, they have no recollection of the events that occurred in the preceding hours. They often have to rely on others, look at their phone histories, or use context clues to fill in the gaps. In many cases, people learn from secondhand sources that they did harmful, destructive, or irresponsible things while intoxicated. This can lead to intense feelings of shame, embarrassment, or regret. 

How Much Do You Have to Drink to Experience a Blackout From Alcohol?

While there’s no set amount of alcohol that can trigger a blackout, blackouts are most likely to occur when a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches roughly twice the legal driving limit. This usually means a BAC around 0.16. At this level, the average person begins to experience the following: 

  • Reduced impulse control
  • Impaired judgment
  • Impaired decision-making capabilities
  • Impaired memory
  • Impaired vision and speech
  • Reduce cognitive abilities
  • Loss of attention span
  • Emotional numbness
  • Loss of consciousness

For people who take sleep medications, antidepressants, and other medications that increase the effects of alcohol, blackouts can occur at much lower levels of consumption. Risks for blacking out also increase when BAC rises rapidly due to fast alcohol consumption. When a person consumes alcohol, it passes through the stomach and small intestine before being absorbed into the bloodstream. It is the liver’s job to filter alcohol from the body. However, the liver is only capable of filtering what amounts to one drink per hour. Unmetabolized alcohol will remain in the bloodstream. 

It is impossible to say how much a person needs to drink before entering the territory for being at risk of blacking out. Speed and quantity are obviously important. However, a person’s size also impacts alcohol metabolism. Females also tend to reach higher BAC levels per drink faster than males because they weigh less than males on average. As a result, women have higher risks for alcohol-related blackouts compared to men.

Does blacking out mean that you have a problem with alcohol? Only a medical professional can provide you with an assessment that takes all factors into consideration. However, it’s more likely that you are struggling with alcoholism if you are experiencing repeated blackout events compared to a single event that may have been caused by unintentionally drinking on an empty stomach, drinking while taking a medication that enhances the effects of alcohol, or some other special circumstance.

Did I Have a Blackout If I Have Some Memories?

One of the misconceptions about alcohol blackouts is that people never remember what happened during the blackout period. In reality, there are actually two types of blackouts. In fact, the most common type of blackout only involves impaired or spotty memories. This is called a fragmentary blackout. 

During a fragmentary blackout, a person will experience “chunks” of memory that are separated by periods of time that cannot be accounted for. A person who has experienced this type of blackout may struggle to fill in the gaps between the events that they do remember. Recollections may begin to come into focus once there has been time to sober up.

The more severe type of blackout is an amnesia blackout. With this type of blackout, a person may have no recollection of the “where, how, and who” involved in a long span of time. What’s more, memories cannot be recovered once a person is sober again. The period of time is completely wiped from their memories and consciousness.

Why Blackouts Are Dangerous

Blackouts put people at risk for both situational and medical dangers. First, blackouts can actually cause damage to the brain’s frontal lobe. When the frontal lobe is compromised, this elevates your risk of developing a condition called frontal lobe syndrome that is linked with depression, mood issues, and behavioral problems. Some people who experience brain changes caused by blackouts actually notice alterations to their personalities that do not reverse once they are sober. While in the midst of a blackout caused by binge drinking, you may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors that can include speeding, driving recklessly, making poor choices, using dangerous substances, or having unprotected sex. The vulnerability that a person experiences when they are impaired during a blackout can also increase risks for being assaulted.

Blacking out can also cause problems in a person’s professional life or personal life. The memory loss associated with recurrent blackouts can make studying, completing work, attending meetings, or meeting deadlines difficult. Excessive drinking that leads to blackouts can also put intense strain on personal relationships because family, friends, and partners can become frustrated with a person’s unpredictable and risky behaviors.

How Do I Know If I Need Treatment for My Alcohol Use?

Certain behaviors make it likely that your alcohol use has actually reached the territory of being alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is the medical term for alcohol use that is causing a person harm or distress. When medical professionals diagnose AUD, they use the following criteria: 

  • Blacking out
  • Drinking more than you intended
  • Drinking for a longer period of time than you intended
  • Being unable to either stop or cut down on drinking
  • Spending a significant portion of your time drinking
  • Being sick from drinking
  • Experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • Experiencing problems with your family or home life due to drinking
  • Experiencing career or academic problems due to drinking
  • Giving up things you enjoy in order to drink alcohol
  • Putting yourself in harm’s way while intoxicated
  • Drinking even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious
  • Drinking despite the fact that alcohol is exacerbating another health issue
  • Drinking higher quantities of alcohol just to get the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms that can include shaking, restlessness, nausea, irritability, or sweating

Any of these symptoms being present in your life could be cause for concern. However, it’s likely that you’ve experienced several of these issues if you’re drinking to the point of blacking out. It’s critical that you seek a formal assessment with a healthcare team to confirm an AUD diagnosis.

What Treatments Are Available If I Believe I Am Abusing Alcohol?

There are many different treatment avenues available for people struggling with AUD. Both inpatient and outpatient options make it possible for people who struggle with alcohol to get the dedicated care they need. While 12-step programs and long-term rehab stays are the two options that most people are familiar with today, the truth is that modern treatments for alcohol abuse are customized to set each client up for success. Common AUD treatments include: 

  • Behavioral treatments and therapies: Using counseling and therapy led by healthcare professionals, behavior-focused treatments for alcohol use empower clients to learn new coping strategies for avoiding alcohol
  • Support groups: The traditional peer support groups and 12-step programs that people associate with getting sober from alcohol are still very common. The peer aspect of these support groups adds an important layer of support for people who struggle with alcohol use. When used in conjunction with traditional rehabilitation services and professionally guided care, support groups can be beneficial for people looking for long-term support and accountability
  • Medications: Prescribers are approved to use FDA-approved prescription medications to help people either stop drinking or prevent relapsing in the United States. Generally, pharmaceutical interventions are used to help clients who are detoxing from alcohol to get through withdrawals safely under medical supervision

In some cases, treatment begins with a medically supervised alcohol detox. From there, outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation may be selected. Next, a person may begin the healing process using alcohol counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or EMDR therapy.

Getting Help for Alcohol Use in a Crisis

A person who is in a crisis due to alcohol use may not always be in a position to wait to contact a primary doctor. They may also feel too embarrassed or overwhelmed to book an appointment with their doctor to discuss their history of alcohol-related blackouts. This is where a toll-free alcoholism hotline can truly save a life.

AlcoholAwareness.org is one of the nation’s leading hotlines for people who are struggling with alcohol consumption. The Alcohol Awareness Hotline (855-955-0771) is operated by recovering alcoholics who understand the struggle of finding free, reliable resources. You can call on behalf of yourself or a loved one 24 hours a day.

Should you be concerned if you’ve started blacking out due to drinking? While there are exceptions where a person blacks out due to drinking more than usual on a rare occasion, the majority of people who experience alcohol-related blackouts have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Blacking out from drinking is one of the strongest signs that you are suffering from alcohol addiction. It’s also one of the most dangerous consequences of drinking too much alcohol. There’s no need to let alcohol strip one more ounce of your health or safety away from you. Get support today!

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