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Alcohol Black Out: Does it Mean You Are An Alcoholic?

Posted Nov 20 2009 10:04pm

As a psychiatrist specializing in addiction, I have been surprised by my patient’s frequent reports that they have had numerous black outs when intoxicated. Have you or anyone you know had a black out? I f so, please read my free guide about thesymptoms of alcoholismto assess if you or a loved may have an alcohol problem.

What is a black out? It is amnesia for the events that occurred when a person is intoxicated. There are “enbloc”  black outs in which the person has no memory of the events that transpired when intoxicated and there are “fragmentary” black outs in which there are memory gaps about the time period when intoxicated. In the latter type, some of these gaps may be filled in by prompting the person to remember. What types of things do people forget during a brain black out? Conversations, driving, sex etc.

The number of men and women who have a drinking problem that experience black outs are equal in number, but women require much less alcohol to experience a black out.  Women are at greater risk for both black outs and even milder forms of memory impairment that alcohol can cause. The part of the brain that is damaged is the hippocampus where memories are formed.

What causes a black out?

  • Drinking too much
  • Drinking too fast (ex. binge drinking)
  • Drinking on an empty stomach.

The quicker your blood alcohol goes up, the more likely a black out will occur. It can happen with a blood alcohol level as low as .14%. Genetics probably play a role.

College kids are particularly susceptible because of binge drinking. In 2002, White and colleagues found that out of 772 college kids that 51% had had a black out at some point in their life. Black outs are more common than previously thought.

Bottom line: Alcohol causes brain damage. One effect is interfering with forming long term memories. If someone you know is having  drinking black outs, know that is a sign of alcoholism and that treatment for alcoholism should be sought.

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