Alcohol affects the brain in many different ways, both over a short-term and long-term time frame. 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.
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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.
Alcohol Seizure Signs
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 or 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.
What Does an Alcohol-Induced Seizure Look Like?
Seizures come in many different forms depending on what area of the brain they affect. Technically, a seizure refers to an abnormal type of brain activity, not the convulsions or other symptoms they cause — these are only outward manifestations of a seizure. Seizures may cause sudden, complete unresponsiveness or convulsions of just part of the body.
While there are many different ways seizures can manifest, tonic-clonic seizures are the most common form of seizures and can last up to two minutes. In these seizures, the person’s whole body becomes rigid. They will fall down 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 the seizure, 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. However, because the brain is so relaxed, it may become extra sensitive to stimulation.
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 — a condition called 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 both temporary and lasting brain damage and increase the likelihood of seizures occurring.
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 to 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 of time. Those who have an underlying health risk for seizures, have a history of diabetes or have experienced alcohol withdrawal seizures before are most at risk. Most people who drink lightly or even moderately are at a low risk of alcohol withdrawal seizures.
Alcohol and Epilepsy
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 normally would. Someone with epilepsy should use alcohol very carefully, as it can increase the risk of serious health problems and complications.
Hangovers themselves 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 developing.
Alcohol Seizures and Brain Damage
Seizures may cause lasting brain damage in a variety of ways. In severe cases, seizures can last for 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 cause brain damage in other ways. While a seizure itself may not damage the brain, it can lead someone to suddenly fall and be unable to catch themselves. This can lead to head injuries and irreversible brain damage. Seizures can also disrupt oxygen supply to the brain, potentially leading to permanent brain damage.
Can You Die From an Alcohol-Induced Seizure?
While the seizure itself is unlikely to be fatal, it can lead to injuries that can be very dangerous. 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 potential injuries.
Alcohol Detox Treatment in Columbus, Ohio
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 professional around-the-clock so they can help prevent seizures and immediately treat any seizures that develop.
The Recovery Village Columbus Drug and Alcohol Rehab offers a 5–10 day alcohol detox program that ensures seizures are quickly detected and treated during withdrawal. Our program offers comprehensive follow-up care after detox to help maintain long-term sobriety. The Recovery Village Columbus is 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 not only helping you detox safely but also to helping you maintain long-term sobriety. Contact us today to learn how we can help you start on your journey to lasting freedom from addiction.
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.