Last Updated: September 15, 2023
Alcohol affects the brain in many ways over the short and long term. People who use alcohol often wonder if alcohol can cause seizures and what the risks are. Alcohol can cause seizures; however, seizures from alcohol use are most likely to occur during alcohol withdrawal.
Can Alcohol Cause Seizures?
Drinking has a complex link to seizures. Although most people with alcohol-linked seizures experience them during withdrawal, others can get them while drinking heavily. Alcohol acts on receptors in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA receptors, which are closely linked to seizure risk. This creates a close connection between alcohol use and seizures. If you or a loved one has a history of seizures or alcohol withdrawal, learning about the link between drinking and seizures is important.
What Does an Alcohol-Induced Seizure Look Like?
Seizures are different for everyone; however, seizures can often be predicted right before they occur by a phenomenon called an aura. An aura is different for everyone and can include a visual disturbance, a smell, a taste or even a strong emotional feeling. Auras occur right before a seizure and can help someone with a history of seizures know that a seizure is about to happen.
While seizures can manifest in many ways, tonic-clonic seizures are the most common and can last up to two minutes. In these seizures, the person’s whole body becomes rigid. They will fall if standing upright, and every muscle in their body will be completely tense. Following this stage of the seizure, the person will convulse uncontrollably. Often, the person will have no bodily control during the seizure and will not remember it, being very groggy as they slowly wake up afterward.
Types of Alcohol-Induced Seizures
Drinking impacts GABA receptors, which have a relaxing influence on the brain. One of GABA’s functions is to prevent seizures. Most of the time, because drinking enhances GABA’s effects, the brain is even more relaxed than normal. This effect is often called central nervous system depression. When the nervous system is overly depressed, it can lead to conditions that increase the likelihood of seizures when large amounts of alcohol are used.
Seizures After Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol at once can increase your risk of seizures, especially if you binge drink or have a history of seizure problems. Alcohol use changes brain signals and can cause dehydration and changes in the normal concentrations of chemicals in your bloodstream. Seizure medicine can also interact with alcohol, making its effect even greater. All these factors combine to increase your risk of seizures while using alcohol.
Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Seizures?
Alcohol poisoning can increase the risk of seizures beyond what simply using too much alcohol would. Alcohol poisoning can severely reduce your blood sugar levels, leading to hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia causes seizures and is more likely to occur in those who use medicine to keep their blood sugar levels in a normal range.
Alcohol poisoning can also lead to slow or absent breathing, reducing the amount of oxygen in the brain, a condition called hypoxia. This can lead to temporary and lasting brain damage and increase the likelihood of seizures.
Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures
While drinking too much alcohol can increase the risk of seizures, most alcohol-related seizures occur during alcohol withdrawal, which happens when you’re dependent on alcohol and stop drinking. If a seizure occurs from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, it will most often happen within 12–48 hours.
The GABA receptors that alcohol over-stimulates decrease the likelihood of seizures. When alcohol is gone, however, these receptors go from over-stimulated to temporarily under-stimulated as they try to adjust to normal. While under-stimulated, they create a reverse effect, making seizures more likely to occur until they readjust to the absence of alcohol, leading to alcohol withdrawal seizures.
Will I Have a Seizure if I Stop Drinking?
While alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures, they are not guaranteed to happen. Alcohol withdrawal seizures are more likely to occur in those who have used alcohol heavily over prolonged periods. Those with an underlying health risk for seizures, a history of diabetes or who have experienced alcohol withdrawal seizures are most at risk. Most people who drink lightly or even moderately are at low risk of alcohol withdrawal seizures.
Delirium Tremens and Alcohol Seizures
Delirium tremens is a serious, life-threatening complication of alcohol withdrawal. Someone with delirium tremens may have hallucinations, psychosis, heartbeat changes and high body temperature. Seizures often occur during delirium tremens but are not always a symptom of this condition. Withdrawal seizures also happen independently of delirium tremens, and having seizures during withdrawal doesn’t necessarily mean that delirium tremens is present.
Misusing alcohol can increase your overall risk of developing epilepsy. Heavy alcohol use of three or more drinks in a day can also increase the frequency of seizures in those who already have epilepsy. Additionally, epilepsy medications can increase the effects of alcohol, causing each drink to make you more intoxicated than it usually would. Someone with epilepsy should use alcohol very carefully, as it can increase the risk of severe health problems and complications.
Hangovers do not generally increase the risk of seizures, but they can play a role in seizures occurring. The greatest risk of a seizure during a hangover is not due to the hangover itself but to the long-term blood sugar effects of alcohol. Alcohol causes an initial spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a drop below normal levels for the next 12 hours.
Abnormally low blood sugar levels can lead to seizures, and this drop normally occurs at the same time as a hangover, causing people to connect the hangover with the seizure. Those on blood sugar medications are most at risk for this complication. Dehydration during a hangover may also increase the risk of seizures.
Alcohol Seizures and Brain Damage
Seizures may cause lasting brain damage in many ways. In severe cases, seizures can last more than five minutes or reoccur repeatedly; this is a dangerous condition called status epilepticus. Status epilepticus is a medical emergency and can lead to lasting, irreversible brain damage.
Seizures can also lead to brain damage in other ways. While a seizure may not damage the brain, it can make someone suddenly fall and be unable to catch themselves. This can cause head injuries and irreversible brain damage. Seizures can also disrupt the oxygen supply to the brain, potentially leading to permanent brain damage.
Can You Die From an Alcohol-Induced Seizure?
While the seizure is unlikely to be fatal, it can lead to injuries that can be very dangerous or potentially fatal. Several potential injuries can be fatal, such as falling and hitting your head, biting off your tongue during a seizure and choking on it and many other possible injuries.
Preventing Alcohol Seizures
You can prevent alcohol seizures by avoiding binge drinking and moderating your drinking so alcohol dependence does not develop. Binge drinking can increase your seizure risk in many ways. By avoiding binge drinking, you will prevent the seizures it may cause. Developing alcohol dependence means you drink enough to have withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking. Seizures are a potential withdrawal symptom that can be prevented if you drink in moderation.
Managing Your Alcohol Intake
Drinking moderately at the most will help you avoid developing alcohol dependence. This means drinking seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men at the most. While managing your drinking can help you avoid seizures, drinking in moderation can lead to more drinking, creating a risk of developing addiction and dependence.
Medications To Prevent Seizures
Many medications can help prevent seizures; however, these are only used in those with epilepsy or who are likely to have seizures. Seizure medicine requires a prescription, and doctors do not typically prescribe them to people who think they may have seizures from drinking.
Common seizure medications include:
- Levetiracetam (Keppra): This broad-spectrum anti-seizure medication is commonly used to treat epilepsy by influencing neurotransmitter activity and reducing seizure frequency.
- Valproic Acid (Depakote): Primarily used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, this drug increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain to reduce seizure activity.
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol): An anticonvulsant often used for focal seizures and generalized tonic-clonic seizures, it reduces abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Medical Detox for Alcohol Seizures
The highest risk for alcohol-related seizures is typically during detox. Anyone who may experience alcohol withdrawal seizures should detox from alcohol using a medical detox. In a medical detox, you’re monitored by licensed medical professionals around-the-clock so they can help prevent seizures and immediately treat any seizures that develop.
The Recovery Village Columbus offers a 5–10 day medical alcohol detox program that ensures seizures are quickly detected and treated during withdrawal. Our program provides comprehensive follow-up care after medical detox to help maintain long-term sobriety. We are also an in-network provider for a range of insurance companies, including Cigna, BCBS and Humana.
If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism and need help safely detoxing, we are here for you. We are committed to helping you medically detox safely and maintain long-term sobriety. Contact us today to learn how we can help you start your journey to lasting freedom from addiction.