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Blackouts and Alcohol Poisoning

Although many people enjoy an occasional drink from time to time, drinking excessively can lead to many consequences. One of these is overdose. Binge drinking is a common practice in the United States. One in six adults reported consuming about eight drinks per binge episode. Around 92 percent of adults who drink excessively reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.

In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 14 percent of high school students reported binge drinking in the past 30 days. Even though binge drinking is more common among individuals between 18 and 34, people who are 35 and older make up half of the total binge drinking incidents.

The Repercussions of Binge Drinking in Youth

In general, youth who binge drink are at a greater risk of serious problems than peers who do not engage in this dangerous behavior. A study published in 2003 found that 45 percent of high school students reported drinking alcohol during the past 30 days. Of those students, 29 percent binge drank. Binge-drinking rates were similar among boys and girls and increased with age and grade level. Students who reported binge drinking were more likely to experience poor school performance. They also had a higher likelihood of engaging in risky health behaviors. Some of the correlations mentioned included:

  • Riding with a drunk driver
  • Being sexually active
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Being a victim of date-related violence
  • Attempting suicide
  • Using illicit drugs

The Health Risks of Binge Drinking

There are many health-related risks associated with excessive alcohol intake. Some are immediate and others that are long term. Binge drinking can cause alcohol poisoning and blackouts, as well as multiple different types of injuries.

Some of these injures may include:

  • Unintentional injuries
    • Vehicular accidents
    • Falls
    • Burns
    • Drowning
  • Intentional injuries
    • Firearm injuries
    • Sexual assault
    • Domestic violence

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Some people continue to drink despite clear signs of impairment. The liver can only process a limited amount of alcohol, which equates to about 10 ml of pure alcohol every hour. This equals a single shot of whisky, a 12-oz. can of beer or a 5-oz. glass of red wine. When a person drinks faster than their liver can metabolize, the alcohol will start to accumulate in their blood and body tissues. This is when the blood-alcohol-level elevates.

Overdose or alcohol poisoning can occur when a person has a high-enough blood-alcohol content to produce deficiencies. When this happens, a person’s breathing, heart rate, and ability to control body temperature start to shut down.

“How long does alcohol poisoning last?” is a fairly common question. The answer is complex because there are so many factors that make a difference including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Drinking experience
  • The amount of food eaten
  • Ethnicity

Most professionals state that the overdose period can last several hours. Damage can last a lifetime, and in some cases death can occur immediately. Patients with alcohol poisoning often need hours of observation in emergency departments and are frequently hospitalized.

Because alcohol acts as a depressant, it can hinder brain signals that control automatic responses such as the gag reflex. A person with alcohol poisoning can easily pass out, choke on his or her vomit, and die from asphyxiation. When a person who uses alcohol survives, the overdose itself can lead to permanent brain damage. In 2012 there were 2,221 reported deaths related to alcohol poisoning in the U.S., with an estimated 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning every year.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Signs that may indicate a person has alcohol poisoning may include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Stupor
  • Coma
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dulled responses (e.g. no gag reflex)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Pale or bluish skin color

If you suspect an individual has alcohol poisoning, there are important steps to follow that could make the difference between life and death.

  • Never assume that the person is “sleeping it off.” Try to keep them awake.
  • Do not leave the individual alone.
  • Try to keep them in an upright position.
  • If they are able to drink liquids, give them water, but avoid coffee because it will worsen dehydration.
  • If the person is unconscious place them in the recovery position, lying on their left side, and check to see if they are breathing. This allows them to keep breathing and prevents the airway from being clogged with vomit.
  • If breathing is slow or irregular, call 911 immediately. Check the person’s skin temperature and body color. If they appear blue, pale, clammy and cold, call 911 immediately.

Any or all of these signs may indicate alcohol poisoning. If you cannot wake the individual, or you have concerns over what to do, call 911 without delay.

Alcohol Blackout Facts

There are key differences between blackouts and passing out from alcohol. For years, the effects of alcohol were thought to slow neural activity, resulting in the impairment of cognitive, psychological and behavioral brain functions. An alcoholic blackout was perceived as a severe case of this loss of function.

Blackouts are characterized by amnesia during episodes of intoxication in which the subject is conscious and able to carry on conversations or drive a vehicle. This indicates that alcohol induces selective effects on specific brain systems.

More recent research highlights the role of the hippocampus (memory-forming section of the brain) during alcohol induced blackouts. When a person has a high blood-alcohol-level, this impairs the ability of the hippocampus to form new memories. Blackouts do not result in forgetting what happened. Instead the hippocampus does not store the memory in the first place. Alcohol-induced blackouts are reported by approximately 50 percent of drinkers.

Passing out, unlike a blackout, is a loss of consciousness and not being able to be awakened. Individuals with alcohol poisoning can pass out or experience a blackout. Both of these can result in negative consequences such as unintentional injuries. Yet blackouts are associated with long-term damage.

A 2015 study of 1,402 teens in the U.K. (ages 15 to 19) found that 30 percent of 15-year-olds reported blacking out from excessive alcohol consumption. Yet 74 percent of 19-year-olds reported suffering a blackout. Blackouts were once associated with alcohol dependence or alcoholism. However, anyone who drinks too much too fast may experience a blackout, which explains the high rate in teenagers. However, not all individuals who drink rapidly and excessively experience blackouts, suggesting that some people are more genetically predisposed to alcohol-induced memory impairment.7 The consequences of blackouts extend beyond those related to drinking and include psychiatric symptoms and neurobiological abnormalities.8,9

Although it is evident, blackouts are not limited to full-blown cases of alcoholism, a majority of alcoholics experience blackouts during the early phases of addiction. Alcohol poisoning and blackouts have many dangerous implications. If you or someone you know has experienced an alcohol overdose and or a blackout, seek help before the problem worsens or turns into an addiction.

Posted on August 5, 2016 and modified on April 27, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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