People who consume alcohol in excess may experience blackouts or brownouts. The former refers to complete amnesia regarding events that occurred during bouts of binge drinking. Memories of those events that characterize the latter are partial or hazy and may be somewhat remembered when prompted by another person. Ultimately, individuals who experience frequent memory loss related to drinking should be assessed for alcohol dependence, and they likely need substance abuse treatment to curb their drinking issues.
Many people encounter a retroactive loss of consciousness as a result of heavy alcohol use. Upon waking in the morning, they have no recollection of what occurred while under the influence of alcohol the previous evening. Or, their memories are hazy and sporadic, and they’re only able to remember a portion of what transpired.
When amnesia associated with excessive drinking is complete, this is commonly referred to as a blackout. This condition is not confused with a total loss of consciousness—the person experiencing the blackout merely cannot remember what they did or said when they were under the influence of alcohol, though unconsciousness certainly can occur.
When memory loss is only partial, this is often referred to as a brownout. Brownouts are less severe versions of blackouts, as amnesia is more limited. Details of what occurred while intoxicated are missing and the memories that can be recalled are somewhat vague and distorted.
Regarding the blackout vs. brownout comparison, blackouts tend to be more significant and indicative of heavier alcohol consumption. However, both result from a brain that has short-circuited, and each is a hallmark sign of potentially risky, dangerous, and reckless behavior that could have severe long-term consequences the longer it continues.
Why Do Blackouts and Brownouts Occur?
Blackouts and brownouts are typical side effects of binge drinking. When individuals consume vast quantities of alcohol rapidly, it can cause blood-alcohol content (BAC) levels to spike. This can have a substantial impact on the brain’s neurological activity, specifically in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is a brain region associated with long-term memory. Excessive alcohol consumption can be a shock to the system, and when levels of alcohol in the blood reach a certain point, the hippocampus will cease functioning. The ability to store long-term memories will be lost until the liver can clear the bloodstream of alcohol successfully.
Binge drinking is described as consuming either four-five standard drinks in a two-hour period for women and men, respectively, with a BAC of .08 as the projected level of intoxication. The BAC threshold for a brownout is probably going to be somewhere between .14 and .20, while the threshold for an entire blackout may be as high as .30, which is nearly four times the expected BAC during a bout of “normal” binge drinking. Drinking must be heavy and rapid to reach these extremely high levels of intoxication.
At the time of alcohol intoxication, the affected individual will continue to move around, make decisions, interact with other individuals, and perform various tasks, possibly including some that are somewhat complex. Memories will be retained from minute to minute, and while there may be obvious signs of intoxication, the person will still be capable of functioning to a certain extent.
However, when the following day arrives, memories of these events will be nil, foggy or incomplete if a blackout or brownout had moderately-severely restricted their hippocampus. In any case, these experiences are hallmark signs of severe neurological disruption and indicative of the many types of damage binge drinking can cause.
Effects of Binge Drinking on Long-term Health and Wellness
Brownouts and blackouts are not in themselves life-threatening but are signs of drinking that is out of control, and if it becomes routine, binge drinking can have detrimental effects on an individual’s health. This is primarily because of the effect of excessive drinking on the liver. Overstressed livers release toxic byproducts into the bloodstream when detoxifying the body of extreme amounts of alcohol.
Some possible long-term consequences of binge drinking include the following:
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Severe forms of cancer
- Exacerbation of diabetes
- Giving birth to children born with fetal alcohol syndrome
- Permanent neurological damage that affects memory and learning
- Increased risk of alcohol poisoning, accidents, injuries, or exposure to violence, any of which could prove lethal
- Alcohol use disorders
In 2016, 65.3 million persons in the U.S. age 12 and over reported binge drinking episodes in the last 30 days. Also, 15.1 million individuals in the U.S. had an alcohol use disorder in that same year.
Binge drinking and alcoholism are both in and of themselves risky, but when the two are combined, the likelihood of health problems and other severe consequences increases significantly.
Alcohol Poisoning Signs and Symptoms
Some symptoms start mild and grow worse. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Smelling like alcohol
- Confusion or slurred speech
- Poor coordination or stumbling
- Damp or clammy skin
Some symptoms of alcohol poisoning are more severe, and may include the following:
- Extreme confusion
- Trouble staying awake
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed breathing
- Long pauses between breaths
- Very slow heartbeat
- Low body temperature
- Bluish or pale skin (cyanosis)
- Impaired gag reflex
Alcohol Poisoning Complications
In severe instances, alcohol poisoning can lead to problems such as the following:
- Choking on vomit
- Breathing difficulties
- Severe dehydration
- Brain damage
- Heart attack
Evaluation and Treatment for Alcohol Dependence
Binge drinking can be dangerous in any circumstances, but the excessive binge drinking associated with blackouts and brownouts is especially problematic.
If binge drinking behavior continues long-term, debilitating and potentially lethal health complications are nearly inevitable. The level of intoxication associated with blackouts and brownouts can also result in reckless, impulsive, or irresponsible behavior that leads to tragic consequences—for the person with the alcohol abuse problem as well as their loved ones, and sometimes simply innocent bystanders.
Anyone who has encountered multiple episodes of memory loss caused by binge drinking should be assessed for alcohol use disorder, and they should be prepared to seek treatment immediately if they receive a diagnosis as such. Binge drinking isn’t necessarily the same as alcoholism. Still, persons who cannot control their drinking likely need help in the form of long-term inpatient or partial hospitalization treatment programs for alcohol dependence.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery Centers offer comprehensive rehab programs that feature evidence-based services and activities, including the following:
- Behavioral therapy
- Individual counseling
- Family counseling
- 12-step group support
- Relapse prevention
- Health and wellness education
- Substance abuse education
- Experiential activities
- Aftercare planning
We employ caring health and mental health providers that facilitate therapies and services to those we treat with compassion and expertise. We are dedicated to ensuring that each individual receives the most effective care available and the tools, education, and support they need to maintain long-lasting sobriety and physical and emotional well-being.