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Alcohol/Drug Ed


Alcohol/Drug Ed > Alcohol > 101: Blackouts

In the past 12 months, have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went? 

Spit for Science data on Alcohol-related blackouts

Visit the website for more Spit for Science information. 

If you’ve seen the movie “The Hangover,” you know that alcohol-related blackouts are not pass outs. Drinkers remain up and moving but alcohol derails brain systems, resulting in short-term memory never getting moved to long-term memory.

There are two types of blackouts– complete (permanent memory loss of periods of hours or even days that never returns) and partial (short pieces of memory loss lasting minutes that sometimes may be recalled). Why this night and not another? Students are puzzled sometimes about why they blacked out on a certain night when in the past they drank more and didn’t.

Research suggests that the rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is a key factor. Gulping drinks on an empty stomach or drinking too much too fast is the recipe for having a blackout. The usual blackout blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is about 0.20. However, in some studies, people have blacked out with a BAC as low as 0.06 (yeah, that’s not a typo).

Who blacks out? The Spit for Science pie chart above shows that most students
(58%) did not black out in the past year. However, students who do shots, play drinking games, and gulp drinks are the most at risk.
Women are at risk if they try to drink at the same rate as men. Students who are part of groups with traditions of rapid drinking and drinking games are at risk. Blackouts also have a genetic component. If one identical twin has blackouts, the other is more likely to be prone to blackouts as well, due to common DNA variants that makes someone more susceptible. It’s a myth that you have to be an "alcoholic" to black out. While blackouts are more common in alcoholics, they also occur in rare or occasional drinkers. Some people who define themselves as alcoholics never have blacked out.

Can you stop blacking out?

Some students have one blackout and then, confronted by the consequences, choose to alter their drinking and don’t black out
again. Research shows that students who blacked out six times or more in the previous year are 2.5 times more likely to end up in the emergency room. Hospital bills, unplanned STIs/pregnancy, and embarrassing Facebook posts don’t have to happen.

If you or someone you know is experiencing repeated blackouts, patterns can be changed. Contact us or University Counseling Services for some supportive ideas so you can remember all the great times of your life.