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Black out drunk: symptoms, causes, and prevention

Reading time: 7 mins

Pop culture may have instilled the idea into our minds that letting loose and having fun equates to drinking to the point of submerging oneself in so much alcohol that they have no recollection of what transpired the night before. This temporary memory loss is called an alcohol-induced blackout, and it has very real, dangerous effects that are a lot different from what is depicted on your screen. 

Blackout drunk refers to the temporary loss of memory caused by a sudden spike in a person’s blood alcohol content. And although many people often confuse a blackout with “passing out,” which is a loss of consciousness due to excessive alcohol consumption, the two are different. 

When someone is blackout drunk, their brain loses the ability to form short-term memories and transfer them to its long-term storage, and this happens while an individual is still awake and conscious. Signs that are indicative of blacking out may be hard to identify because the afflicted person may still function as normal and the symptoms may also mimic those of intoxication. The symptoms of blackout drunk include headaches, dizziness, muscle spasms, vision changes, and difficulty speaking. 

Preventing blackouts is important to keep its complications at bay. The best ways to avoid a blackout is to abstain from alcohol, eat before and during drinking sessions, hydrate with water, and take a sip instead of a gulp of the alcoholic beverage. 

What is Blackout Drunk?

Blackout drunk is a condition that is characterized by periods of memory loss and a feeling of lost time. Although people are still conscious while they are black-out drunk, they are unable to remember events that happened during the time they were intoxicated. 

While some memories from blackouts can be recovered, that is not usually the case. In fact, other times, it is as if the events never really happened. Being blackout drunk does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from alcoholism. However, the mere fact that you have blacked out should be a cause for concern and prompt you to replace your unhealthy connection with alcohol with a healthier alternative. 

What are the symptoms of blackout drunk?

Identifying if someone is blacking out may be challenging because oftentimes, they can still function as they normally would. The symptoms of blackout drunk are listed below. 

1. Dizziness

Also referred to as “the spins,” dizziness can be caused by excessive drinking. It can come in two forms: lightheadedness and vertigo. Lightheadedness is an unpleasant sensation or feeling of almost fainting or passing out, while vertigo creates a false sense of motion that feels as though you or your surroundings are moving or spinning. In severe cases, dizziness can lead to actual fainting, loss of consciousness, and an elevated risk of injuries.

2. Headaches

Blacking out drunk as a result of drinking to excess can make blood vessels expand and stimulate certain brain nerves, leading to a headache. Additionally, the diuretic effects of alcohol can also lead to headaches. This symptom can occur within 30 minutes to 3 hours of drinking and evidence exists that alcohol is a huge migraine trigger, so those who are prone to migraines often get headaches when drinking alcohol.

3. Muscle spasms

Blacking out during a drinking session can cause discomfort to the muscle. Along with spasms, people may also notice muscle weakness after a night of drinking. Although the mechanisms underlying alcohol-induced muscle damage are poorly understood, experts speculate that it has something to do with how the liver focuses on getting rid of alcohol from the body instead of the lactic acid produced when someone works out. As a result, lactic acid, which can cause muscle cramps, stays longer in our system and causes further muscle pain and cramps.

4. Vision changes

Heavy drinking to the point of being blackout drunk can cause vision changes such as double or blurry eyesight. This occurs as a result of neurological disruptions caused by alcohol, which slows down one’s reaction times and impairs eye muscle coordination. Over time, excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to loss of color vision, decreased peripheral vision, and thinning of the cornea – all of which can contribute to permanent vision loss.

5. Difficulty speaking

Being black out drunk means intoxication to the point of affecting the brain, slowing down how it communicates with the body, which ultimately leads to changes in speech production, often described as “slurred speech.” Evidence exists that chronic heavy drinking can lead to an inability to express varied emotions through tone of voice, potentially resulting in confusion and impaired personal relationships. 

What are the causes of blackout drunk?

causes of blackout drunk

The causes of blackout drunk are binge drinking, combining alcohol with certain medications, inadequate food and water intake, and sleep deprivation. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in men or four or more drinks in women in around two hours. 

This pattern of drinking can raise a person’s blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) to 0.08 percent or more. Blackouts tend to begin at about 0.16 percent and higher. Combining alcohol with certain medications can also cause someone to be blackout drunk. For instance, anxiety and sleep medications can increase the risk of memory problems and blackouts. 

Additionally, not consuming enough water or food before drinking can make someone more likely to suffer from blackouts. While eating before drinking slows down the rate of alcohol absorption, water replaces lost fluids and keeps someone from taking more sips of their alcoholic beverage. 

Lastly, there is an increased likelihood of a blackout drunk when someone is sleep-deprived. Exhaustion that results from inadequate sleep can make someone more susceptible to blackouts. 

What happens to your body if you’re blackout drunk?

If you are blackout drunk, the impacts of alcohol on your body are evident through changes in speech, reaction times, movement, and memory formation. This means that you cannot store or create new memories while you are blackout drunk. Experts believe this state wherein all memories while intoxicated turn dark after a certain point happens because a part of the brain that is important for creating memories of everyday events called the hippocampus is momentarily impaired.

When this occurs, this structure of the brain that is central to creating running records of events shuts off. As a result, chunks of memory are lost during blackout drunkenness. 

What should you do if someone is blackout drunk?

If someone is blackout drunk, try to understand first that their judgment may be impaired at the moment. It is better to act with this in mind while helping someone who is experiencing a blackout. 

Next, you may try getting them a glass of water and even order food for them. This will help slow down their drinking and give their body more time to process alcohol. It is also important to stay with the person to prevent them from engaging in risky behaviors such as hurting others or themselves. 

Another crucial thing is to keep them awake because blood alcohol content can rise when a person is asleep and may put them at greater risk. Lastly, get them home safe or allow them to stay the night at your place, where they can sober up in a safe environment. 

In the future, talk with an open mind to the person and try to agree on a drink limit or make sure you drink some water and eat food before you have your drinking session. 

Why do you black out when you’re drunk?

You black out when you are drunk because a certain section of your brain called the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in the formation and storage of new memories, is slowed down by excessive amounts of alcohol. 

Interrupted memories that result from being blackout drunk can be more obvious over an extended period of time, even when the person is sober. Binge drinking on a regular basis can also permanently damage the hippocampus, causing brain cells to shrink and inhibiting the brain from retaining new memories. 

How to avoid blackouts?

how to avoid blackouts

Blackouts can lead to risky behavior that opens the door to potentially life-threatening situations. The ways how to stop blacking out while drinking are listed below. 

  • Abstain from alcohol: Needless to say, abstaining from alcohol has a plethora of health benefits. Aside from avoiding blackouts, it can also improve sleep patterns and personal relationships. In addition to abstinence, drinking in moderation and monitoring the amount of alcohol you consume can also help prevent blackouts.
  • Eat before and during drinking sessions: Eating before and during a night of drinking is a good thing. This is because alcohol gets into the bloodstream through your stomach. Therefore, the less content there is, the quicker alcohol gets to you, and this is what causes a blackout when drinking. Having food in the stomach helps slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and gives your body more time to process the alcohol you consume.
  • Hydrate with water: Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes your body to remove fluids through urine. This makes one’s potential hangover worse than if they drank plenty of water before they had alcohol. Drinking lots of water is also advised after a heavy drinking session to flush out toxins and restore hydration levels.

Other ways how to prevent blackouts include:

  1. Get plenty of rest before drinking.
  2. Slow down drinking to cut down alcohol consumption. 
  3. Set a drinking limit for the night based on your tolerance. 

How can you tell if someone is blackout drunk?

It is not always easy to recognize if someone is blackout drunk. While some people may be slurring their speech or starting to forget things, others can still act in a coherent manner and may have no impairment of immediate memory. 

However, Dr. Donal F. Sweeney, in his book, explained the phenomenon and proposed some ways how to test for blackouts, including asking the person in a blackout something that was said a few minutes ago and giving them three unrelated words and seeing if they can still remember the words even after you have distracted them or changed the subject. 

If they happen to pass these tests, they may not be experiencing a blackout. However, if they failed to remember any of the words or anything that happened a few minutes ago, they may be blacked out and should not be left alone. 

How long does a drunk blackout last?

A drunk blackout could last anywhere between minutes to a few days. This is because blackouts can look different for each person and may be influenced by a complex interplay of factors, such as the amount of alcohol consumed, the pace at which it was taken, and one’s physiology. 

A drunk blackout ends once the body has completely absorbed alcohol, and the brain can process memories normally again once the person has sobered up. 

Can blackouts cause complications?

Yes, alcohol-induced blackouts can cause complications and long-term problems, especially in the brain. Chronic alcohol consumption often targets the area of the brain called the frontal lobe, and regular damage to this region can negatively affect one’s ability to concentrate, perform tasks, and control their impulses. 

Excessive drinking to the point of blacking out also puts you at risk of a wide array of complications, including brain damage, cognitive impairment, personality changes, accidents, or injuries during a blackout episode, and neurological problems, such as memory loss and confusion.