Lucky us, Sunday March 17 is Saint Patrick's Day, which means some people are going to use the holiday as an excuse to binge-drink all weekend long. Bars will be pouring green-colored draft beer, restaurants will promote green food, and lots of intoxicated leprechaun wannabes will take to the streets. Whether or not you observe the holiday, there's a very good chance you'll run into a drunk person at some point this weekend.
"Drinking holidays" like Saint Patrick's Day may seem harmlessly fun, but often when tons of tipsy people come together for the purpose of getting drunk, it poses serious harm. It's important to understand the signs that someone is blackout drunk, meaning they've had so much alcohol that their brain stops filing memories, so that you can seek help. So, here's what to look out for this weekend — and any other time, really:
How does alcohol make you blackout?
Alcohol affects neurotransmitters in your brain that are crucial for filing information and creating memories. "Blacking out" essentially means you've consumed so much alcohol that your brain can't make memories for what's happening around you, Reagen Wetherill, PhD, who has studied "blackouts" told Refinery29. The morning after you've been "blackout" drunk, you might have no recollection of what happened — despite having posted Instagram Stories and sent drunk text messages that evening.
When should you call 911 for a passed out drunk person?
Context is important: Is the drunk person sleeping in a loud bar? Tilted over sideways at a house party? If they're passed out in a bustling setting, that's not a good sign. Check in by pinching them or giving them a light shake, and saying their name to try to wake them up, suggests Michael C. Eberhard, M.Ed., program coordinator at, WITH US, the national network for peer accountability. Also make sure they're not in a dangerous place where they could be harmed or taken advantage of, says Alexis Halpern, MD, emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
If they're unresponsive, their breathing is very shallow, they're throwing up, or they're cold and blue, those are obvious signs of alcohol poisoning, in which case you should call 911, Eberhard says. "Then again, just assess if they've lost consciousness from the alcohol or if they're merely sleeping," he says. It's also reasonable to call 911 if the person is acting aggressively, because they mixed alcohol with a drug, Dr. Halpern says. Or if the person has had a fall or significant injury (such as falling off the back of a barstool and hitting their head), then you should seek medical attention, she advises. "Any time someone makes you very worried, take that person to an ER — you will never be faulted," she says.
Is it dangerous to sleep drunk?
Alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream even after someone stops drinking, so it's better to monitor the person than leave them to sleep it off alone, Eberhard says. "If someone is passed out blacked out drunk, they could be in dire need of medical attention," he says. "Making that assessment by looking at the signs, and checking with them could be the difference between just resting and needing medical attention."
It's important to make sure the person is lying on their side with pillows in place that prevent them from rolling onto their back, Dr. Halpern says. "Make sure they’re not going to start throwing up while asleep on their back, and so drunk they will not wake up, so that they are in danger of choking," she says.
How do you not get blackout when drunk?
Obviously, the best way to avoid getting blackout is to not drink any alcohol. But if you already are drinking, then having a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage, and ensuring that you have enough food in your stomach, will slow the effects of the alcohol — and keep you from getting blackout.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.