What is blacking out?
Drinking lots of alcohol can temporarily prevent you from making new memories. It won’t affect your memories of what happened before you started drinking. But you might wake up the next morning not knowing where you are, how you got there, or what you did past a certain point the night before.
Blackouts aren’t always quite so extreme. Maybe you think you remember everything that happened, until a friend tells you about something you did that you don’t remember at all. Sometimes you’ll be able to remember certain details if someone refreshes your memory. Some people call these less severe blackouts “brownouts.”
Blacking out is different from passing out. When you pass out, you lose consciousness, and your body stays where it is. When you black out, you still seem to function normally to everyone around you. It’s only when you wake up the next day and can’t remember what happened that you can tell you blacked out.
Is it dangerous?
Blacking out is usually associated with high-risk drinking or binge drinking… which can be dangerous whether you black out or not. The more you drink, the more likely you are to make poor decisions or get in an accident. You’re also more likely to experience long-term health risks, like liver problems, high-blood pressure, and some types of cancer.
Blacking out can also be really scary. If you don’t know all the people you were with, it can be hard to know if something dangerous happened while you were blacked out. Did you have risky sex with someone? Did you fall down and hit your head at some point? In some cases, you might never know.
How can I avoid blacking out again?
There’s no magic number of drinks you have to have in order to black out. It has to do with your blood alcohol level, which can be affected by lots of things—how quickly you’re drinking, how much you’re eating between drinks, your body size, and how your brain is wired.
If you’ve only blacked out a few times, you can probably avoid it in the future just by being a bit more careful about how much you drink and how quickly:
- Be sure to drink water in between alcoholic drinks.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach—at least not more than 1 or 2 drinks.
- Avoid binge drinking: having more than 4-5 drinks in the space of 2 hours.
- If someone you trust is the designated driver that night, or will only be drinking a couple drinks, you can ask them to keep an eye on you to make sure you don’t do anything dangerous. But don’t rely on this too much—it’s no fun to be the person everyone has to “babysit.”
If you black out regularly, it’s probably time to think about whether you have a drinking problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re addicted to alcohol. But it does mean that you’re taking a gamble with your health and safety, and it would be a good idea to cut back on your drinking.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
- White, Aaron M. (2003). What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain. Alcohol Research & Health, 27(2), pp. 186-96. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm