Have you ever woken up panicked and confused, wondering how you got home after a night out drinking with friends? If this has happened, you might have experienced an episode of alcohol induced amnesia, also known as a blackout. This is different than passing out or losing consciousness. Your friends may report drinking and talking with you during the evening and you may have even driven home – but your memory of some or most of the night is wiped away.
Although blacking out is not uncommon – particularly among young people who drink heavily – it is poorly understood. Alcohol-induced impairment is dangerous and can be unpredictable.
What is a Blackout?
Researchers have identified two types of blackouts:
What Causes a Blackout?
Early studies on blackouts demonstrated that although alcohol is necessary for initiating a blackout, a large quantity of alcohol alone is not sufficient to cause a blackout. In fact, people sometimes have a blackout even when not drinking at their highest level. Factors such as how alcohol is ingested, gender, and genetic susceptibility all play a role in determining a person’s propensity for blackouts. Although having a single blackout by itself may not be sign of alcoholism, repeated blackouts are very often associated with having an alcohol use disorder and being at risk for chronic alcoholism.
According to researchers, gulping drinks and drinking on an empty stomach could also increase a person’s risk of a blackout, as these behaviors raise an individual’s blood alcohol concentration. Additionally, there are gender differences in alcohol-induced blackouts. Women are at greater risk than men of experiencing a blackout even with lower levels of alcohol consumption. This risk is higher in women because:
The Dangers of Blacking Out
Blackouts can be dangerous for a number of reasons besides damage to your memory. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a study of college students who blacked out found that the students “reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving.” The risk for young women who have alcohol blackout may be no different from those who have been given Rohypnol, the date-rape drug. They may experience forced, unwanted, or regretted sexual experiences.
Binge drinking culture in colleges and universities creates increased risk for blackouts and their many negative consequences. Students should be informed of the risks associated with alcohol use, including blackouts, and those who are of legal drinking age should be given guidelines to consume alcohol responsibly if they do decide to drink.
Source: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)
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