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Alcohol and Seizures: Types, Risk Factors & Prevention

Last Updated: January 16, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcohol addiction is a complex and challenging issue, affecting not only the mind and body but also having far-reaching potential impacts on a person’s life and health. One of the lesser-known yet significant consequences of excessive alcohol consumption is the risk of seizures. 

It is important for someone using alcohol to understand the different types of seizures linked to alcohol use, the risk factors involved and how they can be prevented. Understanding these risks is a crucial step toward making informed decisions about your health and determining if your alcohol use could be excessive.

Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol impacts the brain, both immediately and over the long term. Initially, it acts as a depressant, slowing down brain function and altering communication pathways. This results in the typical symptoms of intoxication, such as slurred speech, impaired judgment and delayed reflexes. However, chronic alcohol use can also lead to lasting changes in brain chemistry, altering how brain receptors’ function. 

The changes alcohol creates in the brain can disrupt the delicate balance needed for normal brain function, leading to various neurological effects. Prolonged exposure to alcohol can cause the brain to adapt to its depressant effects by reducing the natural production of certain neurotransmitters. As a result, the brain becomes more hyperactive. This imbalance is not only a driving force behind addiction but also increases the risk of seizures. This is because the brain’s hyperactivity makes it more susceptible to abnormal electrical activity.

How Alcohol Affects Brain Chemistry

Alcohol works by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters, notably chemicals called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. GABA has an inhibitory effect (suppresses activity in the brain) When GABA is stimulated by alcohol, this leads to the sedative effects often experienced during intoxication. Alcohol inhibits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter (stimulating or exciting activity in the brain), further contributing to the depressant effects it creates.

With chronic alcohol use, the brain attempts to compensate for these changes. It does this by altering its neurotransmitter production and receptor activity. These changes can make the brain hyperexcitable. In turn, this sets the stage for seizure activity, especially in cases where alcohol use is suddenly reduced or stopped.

Types of Seizures From Alcohol

Seizures occur when the electrical signals in the brain begin firing altogether instead of in the patterns they are supposed to follow. This can result in many different symptoms, with the most common being convulsions of part or all of the body.

Seizures related to alcohol use can occur due to alcohol abuse, alcohol poisoning and alcohol withdrawal. These seizures may vary in severity and risk based on their cause and timing in relation to alcohol consumption. Understanding the types of seizures alcohol use causes can help in identifying and treating them effectively.

Seizures From Alcohol Abuse

Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to a condition known as alcohol-related seizure disorder. In this condition, seizures occur as a direct result of prolonged heavy drinking. They can happen once or repeatedly as drinking continues, posing a significant risk to your health. It’s important to recognize that these seizures are a clear indication of the need for medical intervention and support in addressing alcohol use.

Seizures From Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when someone consumes large amounts of alcohol in a short period. This condition can also trigger seizures. Toxic levels of alcohol in the bloodstream can affect your breathing and your heart rate. It can cause you to stop breathing, depriving your brain of the oxygen it needs to function correctly. Seizures from alcohol poisoning typically result from a lack of oxygen to the brain, so they should be treated as a medical emergency. 

If you are with someone who may be having a seizure related to alcohol poisoning, it is important that you immediately call 911 and be prepared to provide CPR. The lack of oxygen that occurs during alcohol poisoning can quickly lead to permanent brain damage or death without life-sustaining treatment. Delays in these situations can be deadly.

Seizures From Alcohol Withdrawal

Seizures caused by alcohol most commonly result from alcohol withdrawal. When a person who has been drinking heavily stops or significantly reduces alcohol intake, brain activity becomes imbalanced. This is because the brain’s hyperactivity is no longer being suppressed by alcohol. When the brain is in a hyperactive state, it increases the likelihood that seizures will develop. The hyperactivity caused by alcohol withdrawal can lead to an increased risk of seizures that goes up based on withdrawal severity.

Alcohol withdrawal seizures typically occur within the first 48 hours after the last drink. They are more likely in those who have been through withdrawal before. If someone has a seizure during alcohol withdrawal, this shows the brain is struggling to adjust to the absence of alcohol. This symptom can also be a warning sign of more severe withdrawal complications like delirium tremens. Someone who experiences alcohol withdrawal seizures will need medical help during withdrawal. They should immediately seek help at a detox center or hospital if they are not already under medical care.

Risk Factors for Alcohol-Induced Seizures

While alcohol-related seizures can affect anyone, certain factors increase the risk of developing seizures in the context of alcohol use. Being aware of these can help you prevent seizures from occurring or intervene earlier.

History of Seizures or Epilepsy

Those with a pre-existing history of seizures or epilepsy are at a heightened risk of seizures related to alcohol use. Alcohol can lower your brain’s seizure threshold, making it easier for seizures to occur. This is true even in those who have their condition well-managed with medication. Additionally, alcohol can also interfere with seizure medications. This means that someone who has a history of epilepsy will be at an increased risk of having their medications be less effective, further increasing their risk of seizures.

Use of Other Substances

The use of additional substances, including illicit drugs and certain prescription medications, can compound the risk of seizures in those who consume alcohol. This increased risk is due to the combined effects these substances can have on brain chemistry. 

There are some common substances that can heighten the risk of seizures when combined with alcohol. They include:

  • Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Certain antidepressants

This risk is not limited to illegal drugs. Many seemingly benign medications can interact with alcohol. It is important for anyone who uses medications regularly to speak with their doctor about the risk of drug interactions before drinking.

Brain Abnormalities or Injuries

Brain abnormalities or a history of traumatic brain injuries can predispose someone to an increased risk of seizures, including alcohol-induced seizures. These conditions can make the brain more susceptible to the disruptive effects of alcohol on brain activity, ultimately increasing the risk of seizures. Someone with a history of brain injury should always check with their doctor prior to drinking.

Heavy Alcohol Intake or Binge Drinking

Heavy alcohol intake or binge drinking is one significant risk factor for alcohol-related seizures. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to persistent alterations in brain chemistry that predispose someone to seizures. Chronic drinking also leads to seizures whenever someone who has been drinking for long periods of time suddenly stops and goes through withdrawal.

Binge drinking, even if it’s only a single episode, can also increase the risk of seizures in several different ways:

  1. The high concentration of alcohol in the blood can lead to seizures. 
  2. Binge drinking increases your risk of alcohol poisoning, which can cause you to stop breathing and lead to seizures. 
  3. When you’re done binge drinking, the sudden spike then decrease in alcohol levels can also increase your risk of seizures. They are caused by the same effects in the brain as alcohol withdrawal.

How to Prevent Alcohol-Induced Seizures

Preventing alcohol-induced seizures involves a combination of lifestyle changes, awareness and medical intervention. The first step in prevention is acknowledging the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption and taking proactive measures to reduce alcohol intake. This can include:

  • Setting limits on the amount and frequency of drinking.
  • Avoiding situations that encourage heavy drinking.
  • Seeking support from friends, family, or support groups.

For those who are already experiencing issues related to heavy alcohol use, medical intervention may be necessary. This can include medically supervised detoxification and alcohol addiction treatment programs that address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. Seeking professional help is a critical step in preventing the potentially dangerous consequences of alcohol withdrawal, including seizures.

Treatment Options for Alcohol-Related Seizures

Treatment for alcohol-related seizures involves both immediate medical care and long-term strategies to address the underlying issue of alcohol addiction. In the event of a seizure, immediate medical attention is crucial to ensure safety and manage any complications. This may include the use of anticonvulsant medications to control seizure activity and close monitoring of the individual’s condition.

For long-term management, comprehensive addiction treatment programs are essential. These programs offer a range of services, including detoxification, counseling, behavioral therapy and support groups, tailored to the individual’s needs. The goal of these treatments is not only to manage the immediate risks associated with alcohol-related seizures but also to address the root causes of addiction, promoting a sustained recovery and a healthier lifestyle.

At The Recovery Village Atlanta Drug and Alcohol Rehab, we are committed to helping those with alcohol addiction overcome their addiction and achieve healthy lifestyles. Remember, taking the first step towards recovery is vital, and our team is here to support you. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, please contact us today to start on the journey to lasting recovery.

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