What is a Blackout?

One of alcohol’s most frightening side effects, blackout is very common but little understood. Many confuse blackouts with passing out after a few hours of hard drinking, but the two are completely different.

People who pass out and sleep deeply for minutes or hours usually have some memory of the events leading up to the moment they passed out, even though they may have to be reminded of their activities during that time. A person who experiences a total blackout has absolutely no awareness because the area of the brain responsible for creation of new memories is totally non-functioning throughout the episode.

A person having a blackout can present a significant danger to others by acting impulsively with no restraint, often engaging in bizarre or violent behavior, unprotected sex, quarreling with others, or breaking the law in various ways.

Blackouts: Two Types

There are actually two types of blackouts. A total blackout, also known as en bloc, involves a complete lack of memory during a specific period of time. The onset of a total blackout tends to be abrupt and occurs with no warning.

A total blackout is different than a fragmentary blackout in which a person retains bits and pieces of memory. Fragmentary blackouts , sometimes known as brownouts, are more common than total blackouts.

Total blackouts, which may last hours or even days, are particularly dangerous because the individual may appear absolutely normal, and may hold lengthy conversations with others, drive a car, or carry out other regular activities.

Alcoholics Only?

It’s a common misconception that blackouts happen only to heavy drinkers and alcoholics. Researchers have determined in recent years that blackouts can also happen to occasional and moderate drinkers, sometimes nearly every time they drink, while some heavy drinkers rarely or never experience a blackout. However, it appears that severe, long-term alcoholics are more likely to experience blackouts than occasional social drinkers.

Researchers have yet to come up with an explanation why some drinkers have blackouts while others don’t, but there appears to be a genetic component. Women are at higher risk of blacking out than men because they metabolize alcohol at a slower rate. Women also tend to be smaller, frequently drink wine or whiskey instead of beer, and are more likely to skip meals.

Preventing Blackouts

Experts have learned that blackouts are connected with a dramatic and sudden spike in blood alcohol level. In other words, the episodes have less to do with amounts and are more about how fast you drink.

While the obvious answer is to drink less or stop drinking entirely, slowing down alcohol intake can markedly decrease the risk of blackouts. Eat something before you drink because drinking on an empty stomach causes blood alcohol levels to elevate quickly.

Individuals who are prone to blackouts should never drink alone, but should always be accompanied by a friend or family member who is aware of potential problems. It goes without saying that a blackout-prone person should never drive.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment and Rehab

While blackouts aren’t a sure-fire indication of alcoholism, they are certainly a warning sign that a problem exists. Anything that alters the basic functions of the brain should be taken very seriously, and frequent blackouts create potential for permanent damage.

If you or someone you care about has a problem with blackouts, alcohol treatment and rehab can help get the problem under control before it’s too late. Addiction treatment can also prevent severe consequences associated with substance abuse and addiction.

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