Blackouts and Alcohol Poisoning

Posted on November 11th, 2009

Blackouts and Alcohol PoisoningHow many times have you seen the headlines about a college student dying from alcohol poisoning after drinking games, or a driver so drunk that she couldn’t even hold her head up straight before she plowed into another vehicle, killing several? What about the murderous rampage committed by someone while in a blackout? How many times have you or someone you know passed out from drinking too much alcohol? Or, have you awakened in a strange place with no idea how you got there or, worse, what happened while you were blacked out?

These scenarios are examples of alcohol poisoning and blackouts – and they’re cause for serious concern. In fact, blackouts, which are dangerous enough in themselves, can also lead to alcohol poisoning – and death.

Binge Drinking and Blackouts are Serious Matters

As the amount of alcohol increases in a person’s body, the more serious the impairment is likely to be. In fact, impairment occurs after only a few drinks. Too much alcohol, especially binge drinking on an empty stomach, can lead to blackouts, so-called because it refers to a period of time that’s either completely or partially gone for the individual. He or she cannot remember key details, people, places, time – or entire events.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), equal numbers of males and females experience blackouts. This is despite the fact that males drink more often and more heavily than females, as a general rule. Differences in how men and women metabolize alcohol may mean that females are more at risk for blackouts than men. Research continues into this area.

Binge drinking is the practice of 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours (for men) and 4 or more drinks in the same period for women. According to national surveys and research studies, binge drinking peaks between the ages of 18 and 22. Many binge drinkers are college students, although high school students engage in bingeing as well.

  • The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that the rate of binge drinking was 41.0 percent for young adults aged 18 to 25.
  • Among youths aged 12 to 17, binge drinking rates were 8.0 percent, down from 9.7 percent in 2007.
  • From the NIAAA comes this statistic – binge drinking in high school, especially among males, is a strong predictor of college binge drinking (if the individuals make it to college).
  • Also from the NIAAA, by the time high school students graduate, two-thirds are regular drinkers, while two-fifths are frequent binge drinkers.

Research by Donal F. Sweeney, M.D., and a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, published in his book The Alcohol Blackout: Walking, Talking, Unconscious & Lethal” (Mnemosyne Press, 2004), shows that:

  • Blackouts are unpredictable
  • Blackouts may last for several or many hours
  • Very little alcohol may bring on a blackout
  • Blackouts can occur to first-time drinkers

According to Dr. Sweeney, the person in a blackout appears normal – they can walk, talk and drive, but the alcohol prevents memory forming, leaving the person unconscious. Contrary to long-held belief, blackouts don’t just happen to individuals with advanced alcoholism. Dr. Sweeney’s research shows that moderate and first-time drinkers can have blackouts as well.
Major contributing factors to blackouts appear to be fatigue, food consumption and how fast the person drinks – more than how much. “Blackouts are the most common, misunderstood and neglected neurological dysfunction in the world,” says Dr. Sweeney. “Because of binge drinking, blackouts are epidemic on college campuses. Women are at greatest risk.”

Using a simple memory test Dr. Sweeney devised, it’s possible to tell if someone is in a blackout. Ask the person to choose three words (any words), and have the person repeat them. Then, distract the person by talking about something else. In five minutes, ask the person to repeat the words. If they are unable to remember the words, even one word, it’s a sign that they’re in a blackout.

Pre-Drinking Can Lead to Blackouts and Worse

One new trend that’s occurred among young people is called pre-drinking. This is planned drinking at home or another setting before heading off to a bar – so that the individuals don’t have to spend as much money on alcohol and they can have a buzz when they get there. Often, they’ll buy cheap liquor at a supermarket and down it quickly before they go to a club or bar. It’s a deliberate intent to get drunk – before they have to pay outrageous bar and club drink prices. The practice is dangerous due to the rapid consumption of alcohol, which can increase the risks of hangovers, blackouts and alcohol poisoning.

And that’s not all. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that on college campuses where 70 percent of the student body binge drinks, 87 percent of all students experienced problems such as physical assault, impaired sleep and study time and sexual harassment as a result of their peers’ binge drinking.

Alcohol Poisoning

One consequence of binge drinking that may prove fatal in some individuals is alcohol poisoning. Dangerous drinking games played by high school and college students places them at serious risk of the body’s sudden and potentially fatal physical reaction to an alcohol overdose.

Consider what happens. A healthy young male college student downs 20 alcoholic drinks in a short period of time, egged on by other drinking game participants – each trying to consume more than the other. First to be affected by alcohol’s depressive effects is the cerebrum area of the brain, controlling recognition, vision, emotion and reasoning. At low alcohol intake levels, the drinker loses a sense of inhibition and judgment. The more alcohol that’s consumed, the more vision, speech and movement become affected.

Next, the cerebellum suffers from increasing intoxication, resulting in balance, coordination and reflex problems. The last part of the drinker’s brain to be affected is the medulla – which controls basic survival processes such as heartbeat and respiration. Once the drinker has consumed so much alcohol that his medulla is affected, his heart rate can drop and breathing can cease, resulting in a coma or death.

How much is too much? In other words, how much alcohol can kill you? That depends on a number of factors – including gender, body weight, and tolerance to alcohol, any food that may have been eaten, amount of alcohol consumed and duration of drinking time in the episode. Experts say the lethal rate is about .40 percent – about five times higher than many state’s legal limit. Many people have died from much lower alcoholic limits, and many from much higher.

The human body can oxidize about one ounce of alcohol in an hour. That’s about one drink. It may take from 30 to 90 minutes after you stop drinking for the highest state of intoxication to be reached. The time difference depends on how much you drank, how fast, and whether or not you ate any food during that time.

An important point to remember is that this intoxication level occurs whether the person is conscious or not.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Any individual who has engaged in drinking games or binge drinking and has passed out or is semi-conscious should be evaluated on a frequent basis. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning to look out for include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Difficult to awaken
  • Shallow, slow breathing

What to Do for Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect an individual has alcohol poisoning, there are five steps to follow that may make the difference between whether that person lives or dies.

  1. Never assume that they’re sleeping it off. Try to rouse the individual, calling out their name loudly, pinching their arm, ear lobe or cheek. If they are at all attentive, the alcohol poisoning has probably not yet reached critical levels.
  2. Turn the person so that they’re on their side. This allows them to keep breathing and not get their airways clogged with vomit. Do not leave the individual alone.
  3. Check the person’s skin temperature and body color. Do they appear blue, pale or clammy and cold? If so, call 911 immediately, since these are indications they’re not getting enough oxygen.
  4. How is the person’s breathing? Is it shallow, slow, less than 10 breaths per minute? Does it seem irregular – nothing for seconds and then a few quick breaths? Again, these are danger signs. Call 911 immediately.
  5. Any or all of these signs may indicate alcohol poisoning. Don’t guess, and don’t assume that because the person is breathing that they may not be in danger. If you can’t wake the individual, or have any concerns over what to do, call 911 without delay.

How to Avoid Blackouts and Alcohol Poisoning

Whether an individual has had a blackout already – and vows never to have another, or has not yet experienced either a blackout or alcohol poisoning, the only certain way to avoid either is to reduce or eliminate drinking altogether. That’s the recommendation by Denison University and it might well be the only appropriate solution.

Changing perceptions in a society that views drinking alcohol as a permissible activity, one that’s extolled by alcohol companies in ads showing people having great fun with no consequences takes time. Public service announcements, screening and educational materials in schools, local and national campaigns, however, are having an effect. Overall alcohol usage rates and binge drinking in particular is down among 12th graders, according to the 2008 Monitoring the Future Study. In fact, the rates of 12th grade binge drinking have been dropping since 2002 and are now substantially below peak levels in the early 1980s.
Responsible reporting of alcohol-related fatalities, whether in a vehicle or not, has also helped spread awareness of the dangers of drinking to excess.

One point that’s undeniable is that once a person has a blackout and kills or seriously injures others (or themselves), there’s no going back.

For help with drinking, cutting down or cutting out, the NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health has a downloadable booklet, Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health, which offers tips, strategies and other useful information. Other resources are available on the NIAAA publications page.

To start the recovery process for yourself or a loved one call to speak with a Promises Recovery Specialist.


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