Blackouts

Beer Bottles

Blackouts

Sue's Story

Sue wakes up. She rolls over to see the time, stretches and realizes she doesn't know when she went to bed. Thinking, she remembers going out last night to a party. She remembers drinking something out of a tub. She thinks she remembers meeting a guy and dancing. Did they kiss? Yes, she thinks she remembers kissing and then falling over him. Then what? She's not sure. She gets up and is not feeling well. "Wow, I'm sore." She looks at her knees, they are bloody and scratched up. So are her hands. "Did I fall?" she wonders. "How did I get home?" "Was I alone?" "What happened to my friends?" "What happened to that guy?"

Sue is waking up from a blackout. Maybe her first, maybe not. Either way, there is a lot she doesn't remember. That is scary.

What is a blackout?

  • A blackout is an alcohol induced memory loss.
  •  Blackouts occur when alcohol blocks neurotransmitters that send memories from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is different from passing out, or drinking to the point of becoming unconscious. 
  • When a person is in a blackout they are functioning as normally as another intoxicated person would be functioning. They are able to have conversations and act in ways that do not indicate that they are experiencing a blackout. 
  • Blackouts are not identified until the next day, when the person realizes that they are missing part of his/her night. The memory loss can be a few minutes to a few hours, or longer.

Why does it happen?

  • Blackouts happen when a person’s blood alcohol level (B.A.L.) goes over a certain level. It is different for everybody but it is more likely to occur when a person has a blood alcohol level of over a .15. Remember, in NH, a .08 is the legal limit. Generally, a .15 would be considered quite intoxicated. 
  • Blood alcohol levels increase as a person drinks. The more alcohol the person consumes, the higher the level. 
  • The body can process about one drink per hour, so any additional drinks add up. 
  • At a .15, a person may feel pretty drunk, or maybe not so drunk, depending on their tolerance. This is compounded by what they have eaten, how fast they are drinking, what they are drinking, even if they are tired or sick, male or female.
  • A person is more likely to have a blackout if they drink fast, achieving a high blood alcohol level quickly.

What's the problem with having a blackout?

The obvious problem is that the person can’t remember what they did. If the blood alcohol level was high enough to cause a blackout, it was also high enough to impair other things, like judgment (should I sleep with this person? Should I drive my car? Should I keep on drinking?). This is not the best time to be making important decisions.

A blackout is a warning sign from the body that the person had too much to drink. It also makes it difficult for the person to know what went wrong. "How much did I drink?" "Did I get a safe transport home, or was I in danger?" "Was I taken advantage of?"

Doesn't everyone get blackouts from time to time? What's the big deal?

In actuality, few people get blackouts. In fact, 60% of college students in NH indicate never having a blackout.

What often happens is, someone has a blackout, which can be scary or at least unsettling. Friends, wanting to help, share stories of their blackouts. It is not unusual for friends to have similar consequences when drinking because they are often drinking together. It is reassuring to think that everyone has blackouts. But it is a false sense of comfort because most people never drink enough to get a blackout.

I thought only alcoholics get blackouts.

It's true that many people with alcoholism have blackouts frequently. But people can get blackouts who don't have alcoholism.

Blackouts are a result of how much a person drinks in one night or setting. People who get blackouts frequently will often drink a lot and have a higher tolerance. Some people don't get blackouts until they have a B.A.L. of a .2 or higher. Remember, people have died with a B.A.L. of a .3 or higher. It can be a very dangerous consequence of drinking.

How can I prevent getting a blackout?

The key is to drink less alcohol and know what you are drinking. If you are drinking mixed drinks, drink a standard size (a 12 ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1 ounce of 100 proof alcohol), meaning measure that alcohol! Don't be fooled to think that just because you only held one cup, you only had one drink.

A red solo cup is 16 – 18 ounces. A beer is usually 12 ounces. If you fill that cup half up with vodka that is several drinks, not one! Also, make sure you know what you are drinking. If you are drinking from a punch bowl, you have no way of knowing what is in it, or how much alcohol it contains.

Have a plan before going out. It's okay not to drink. If you choose to drink, plan ahead, how much will you drink? What? With whom? Drinking without a plan can often mean drinking until drunk. By then, a person is more at risk for a variety of consequences and issues, blackouts being a serious one... but many others can be just as dangerous.

Additional Resources