Can Alcohol Cause Seizures?

Can Alcohol Cause Seizures

Can alcohol cause seizures? The short answer is yes, but typically only under certain circumstances. What’s more concerning is that when seizures are alcohol related, they can be potentially fatal. This article will discuss what causes alcohol-related seizures and how to prevent them. 

The best way to understand alcohol-related seizures is first to understand how alcohol affects your brain. 

The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol affects your brain’s communication pathways. 

Even one alcoholic beverage can impact how your brain works, making it hard for the parts of the brain controlling memory, judgment, speech, memory, and balance to work properly. Acute intoxication can occur after a few drinks. 

When someone drinks excessive amounts of alcohol in a relatively short period, it can lead to an alcohol overdose. 

  • An alcohol overdose means there is so much alcohol in a person’s bloodstream that parts of the brain controlling life-sustaining functions start to shut down. 
  • The symptoms of an overdose of alcohol can include confusion, problems staying conscious, vomiting, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, and clammy skin.
  • Seizures are also possible symptoms of an alcohol overdose.
  • An alcohol overdose, also called alcohol poisoning, can lead to permanent brain damage and can be deadly.

Anyone who consumes too much alcohol in too short of a window of time can be at risk of experiencing an overdose. This is most likely when someone binge drinks, a pattern of drinking that brings an individual’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or higher. For women, binge drinking is usually considered a scenario where she drinks four in two hours, and for men, it’s around five drinks in two hours.

Does Alcohol Cause Seizures?

In small amounts, alcohol-related seizures are unlikely. 

Again, binge drinking can cause seizures, even in people without a history of epilepsy or seizure-related conditions.

If you drink large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time, you might experience what’s known as status epilepticus. This is when a seizure lasts for a long time, or the seizures occur close together, and there isn’t time to recover between them. Any seizure that lasts more than five minutes is considered status epilepticus. Prolonged seizures increase the risk of death.

Long-term alcohol use can also slightly increase the risk of developing epilepsy. 

  • Epilepsy is a condition that can trigger seizures. 
  • With long-term alcohol consumption, there can be a change in receptors and brain chemistry, impacting the likelihood of experiencing a seizure.
  • If you’re already diagnosed with epilepsy, you should talk to your doctor before you use alcohol. Alcohol can affect some medical treatments and antiepileptic drugs, and if you have the condition, you may be at higher risk of alcohol triggering an epileptic seizure. 

The overall takeaway from moderate alcohol use is that it’s unlikely to cause seizures, and small amounts of alcohol don’t change the findings of EEG studies. If you have epilepsy, though, be cautious about your use of alcohol, and speak with your doctor about your questions. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures and Syndrome

Alcohol seizures are more often linked to alcohol withdrawal rather than intoxication.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS is a set of symptoms, including alcohol seizure symptoms, that a heavy drinker will experience if they suddenly reduce their alcohol intake or stop drinking.

  • When you go through alcohol withdrawal, you may experience a range of mental and physical symptoms. 
  • Some are severe, including alcohol seizure symptoms and also hallucinations. 
  • Types of seizures can include partial seizures, generalized seizures, clonic seizures, or focal seizures. 
  • If seizures do occur, there are withdrawal medication options available. 
  • These may be given pre-emptively to patients at risk of severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal following years of heavy drinking. For example, a benzodiazepine for alcohol withdrawal may be used, which is discussed more below. 

Acute alcohol withdrawal is one of the few types of substance withdrawal that can be life-threatening.

Anywhere from six hours after your last drink to a few days later, minor withdrawal symptoms can start as someone goes through the process of detoxification from alcohol, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Extreme alcohol cravings 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • High blood pressure

For two to three days, the symptoms can worsen. For weeks, some milder symptoms may be ongoing for some people. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are often more obvious in the morning when you first wake up and have less alcohol in your blood.

What Kind of Seizures Do Alcoholics Have?

The most severe type of alcohol withdrawal that can cause symptomatic seizures is known as delirium tremens or DT. The symptoms, along with alcohol withdrawal seizures, can include:

  • Confusion
  • Extreme agitation
  • Tactile alcoholic hallucinosis, like feeling numbness or burning not there
  • Auditory hallucinations, meaning you hear sounds not there
  • Visual hallucinations, which is seeing things that don’t exist
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever

Around 5% of people who have alcohol withdrawal syndrome will experience DT, but there’s no real way to predict who it will affect. The risk is higher in people with previous alcohol withdrawals, including severe symptoms, or people with an underlying medical illness. 

The reason that alcohol seizure symptoms and other severe symptoms occur is because of the impact of long-term, heavy alcohol use and alcohol tolerance on the brain pathways and the seizure threshold. Your body reacts as it tries to stabilize without the alcohol that it’s become accustomed to. Your brain begins to respond to a sudden lack of alcohol, and your symptoms can intensify.

The longer your history of alcohol misuse, the more severe your symptoms are likely to be.

When you’re a long-term drinker, your central nervous system slows down as your brain produces more GABA. When you stop drinking, it destabilizes your nervous system, which is why seizures can occur.

Can Alcohol Cause Seizures
can alcohol cause seizures

Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms 

Because of the risk of seizures and other severe symptoms that can occur with alcohol withdrawal following chronic alcohol abuse, people are often advised to get professional treatment as they go through detox. 

  • A medical team can monitor withdrawal symptoms, helping keep someone safer and more comfortable as they go through the process. 
  • Medical care for alcohol-dependent patients going through severe withdrawal symptoms can be life-saving and increase the chances of recovery.
  • At a minimum, it’s important to get medical advice before attempting to detox, even if you aren’t getting inpatient care. 

Some medications can reduce the risk of having seizures during alcohol withdrawal.

  • A benzodiazepine called chlordiazepoxide may be prescribed as a seizure medicine. It’s a sedative that can calm overactive brain activity leading to seizures, and it’s often part of the overall management of alcohol withdrawal, whether in an inpatient or outpatient setting. 
  • Other doses of benzodiazepines that are sometimes prescribed for alcohol withdrawal and to reduce the risk of alcohol-induced seizures include Xanax and Ativan.
  • During medical detox, the treatment team may provide other medications for symptoms as needed; however, doses of benzodiazepines are the primary option to reduce the risk of seizures. 
  • We may also provide nutritional supplements to help address nutritional deficiencies and medical complications experienced by chronic heavy alcohol drinkers. 

Most people who experience withdrawal symptoms recover, but if it progresses to delirium tremens, it can be fatal. Detoxing from alcohol in a medical setting, like the Detox Center of San Diego, is essential to avoid harmful consequences.  

Alcohol Detox in San Diego

To sum up, can alcohol cause seizures? In a few rare situations, heavy drinking can cause seizures. One is if someone overdoses on alcohol, known as alcohol poisoning, which can cause long-lasting, harmful seizures.

Another situation where alcohol can cause seizures is when someone is going through withdrawal following abrupt cessation of drinking. This is why many people with an alcohol use disorder are advised to seek professional guidance before detoxing. Seizures are among the most severe withdrawal symptoms following chronic alcoholism and alcohol detox

Please contact the Detox Center of San Diego today by calling 858-293-5301 if you’d like to learn more about detoxing from alcohol and evidence-based addiction treatment programs. 

The Detox Center of San Diego offers treatment for alcohol withdrawal and alcohol dependence, as well as supportive care and programs to help with the cessation of drinking. Our individualized treatment and programs for the detoxification of alcohol and clinical management can help you increase your likelihood of long-term recovery. 

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