Alcohol and Seizures
Does Alcoholism Cause Seizures?
Drinking alcohol does not normally cause seizures. Withdrawing from alcohol, however, can cause seizures. There is no definitive cutoff for what amount of alcohol you have to drink to experience withdrawal symptoms that increase the risk of seizures. As a general rule, the longer you have been drinking over time and the more you drink, the higher your risk for developing withdrawal symptoms, which may include seizures.
Alcohol and Seizures: Alcohol Causing Seizures
Alcohol can cause seizures, but not in the way you think. Small amounts of alcohol or drinking alcohol every once in a while don’t cause seizures. Alcohol causes seizures when a person is going through alcohol withdrawal. Seizures may also occur as a result of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which is the name for the symptoms that occur when heavy drinkers or alcoholics suddenly stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption. A seizure is a burst of uncontrolled electrical activity between brain cells or neurons that causes temporary abnormalities like stiffness, twitching, or limpness. Alcohol withdrawal seizures usually occur 6 to 48 hours after the person’s last drink.
In addition to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, fatigue, anxiety, and hallucinations, alcohol seizures may also occur as the person’s body is adapting to their reduced drinking. It’s important to note that binge drinking can also lead to alcohol withdrawal seizures in people who do not have epilepsy. This substance is also one of the most dangerous to wean off of, which is why so many people undergo alcohol detox to ensure their safety and health throughout the withdrawal process.
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Alcohol Seizures Symptoms
Although all seizures are different, there are some basic signs to look out for. Some common alcohol-induced seizure symptoms include:
- Staring off at one point
- Stiffening of the body
- Jerking movements of the arms and legs
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Falling suddenly for no reason
- Failing to respond to noise for a brief period
- Appearing confused or hazed
- Rapid blinking
A person who’s experiencing a seizure of any kind may have blue lips due to abnormal breathing. They may also feel confused or sleepy afterward. There is a clear relationship between alcohol and seizures, and those who drink heavily for long periods are at a higher risk. Moreover, people with epilepsy should avoid drinking, as alcoholism may also aggravate their condition.
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Alcoholic Seizure Causes
Alcohol mainly causes seizures when a person has completely stopped drinking or greatly reduced their alcohol intake because the body has trouble adjusting. Alcohol, especially in large amounts, greatly impacts your central nervous system, increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) signaling to reduce nerve activity while increasing excitatory signaling through chemicals like glutamate.
This means that in heavy or chronic drinkers, the body compensates for the sedative effects of alcohol by working hard to keep the brain in a more awake state and increasing nerve activity. When an alcoholic suddenly stops drinking or dramatically reduces their intake of alcohol, the brain remains in an excitatory state, which leads to withdrawal and symptoms like seizures.
Seizures caused by alcohol also occur due to an imbalance of nerve-signaling brain chemicals. As with many other drugs of abuse, individuals who fail to receive inpatient drug treatment for their alcoholism may eventually suffer from changes in chemical brain structure. Not only can changes in levels of chemicals like dopamine contribute to addiction, but they can also lead to seizures.
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Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Seizures?
Alcohol naturally suppresses brain activity. When this effect occurs deeply or over a long period of time, brain activity can rebound during alcohol withdrawal, exceeding normal levels and creating the risk of a seizure. Someone with an alcohol withdrawal seizure may experience convulsions and lose consciousness. If an alcohol withdrawal seizure occurs, it is a medical emergency.
An alcohol withdrawal seizure may feel like a loss of consciousness which you are slow to wake up from. If you are conscious during an alcohol withdrawal seizure, you may experience repetitive, uncontrolled movements of part or all of your body. Prior to the seizure, you may also experience an “aura,” consisting of an unusual visual change, smell, taste, or sound caused by abnormal brain activity.
What to do if Someone Has an Alcoholic Seizure?
If someone has a seizure from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, you should move things out of the way that they could accidentally hurt themselves during the seizure. You should not try to touch them or hold them during the seizure. You should also call 911 and get emergency medical help as soon as possible, even if the seizure has stopped. After the seizure, you should position them on their side and ensure that their airway is clear while waiting for emergency assistance.
Different Types of Seizures
There are two different categories of seizures, and within the categories nestle several subcategories. Broadly, you can find focal seizures and generalized seizures. Seizures can also be classified as unknown.
Focal seizures stem from abnormal electrical activity focused on one area of the brain. Some people may lose consciousness while others remain conscious.
- Impaired consciousness – This is when a person has a seizure and loses consciousness or is not aware of what is going on. They might stare into space and be unresponsive. Sometimes they walk in circles or continuously chew
- No loss of consciousness – A person who has a seizure but does not lose consciousness might still have altered emotions, and things might taste strange. This is also the type of seizure in which you might see jerking body parts. People tend to experience dizziness or tingling here as well
Focal seizures and their symptoms can be misdiagnosed as different medical problems such as narcolepsy, migraine, or mental illness.
Sometimes, the seizure experienced involves all areas of the brain. These are called generalized seizures and there are a few different kinds of them. Here is what is experienced with each one:
- Absence Seizures: Blankly staring into space while performing subtle movements like lip-smacking. Most common in children
- Atonic Seizures: Sudden loss of muscle control, often results in falling to the ground
- Clonic Seizures: Commonly results in rhythmic and jerking movements of muscles
- Myoclonic Seizures: Sudden twitching and jerking of the legs and arms
- Tonic Seizures: Sudden stiffening of muscles, especially in the back, arms, and legs
- Tonic-Clonic Seizures: Otherwise known as grand mal seizures, these are the most abrupt and dramatic types of seizures. Body stiffening or shaking, falling to the ground, and loss of consciousness are all to be expected here.
While some people have specific triggers, for most people, there’s no known cause for these seizures. However, we do know of some things that can lead to this experience.
Inpatient Treatment for Alcoholism
Inpatient drug rehab is a type of addiction treatment where patients reside at a rehabilitation facility 24/7 while receiving supervised and highly structured care for their drug abuse.
Once a person enters inpatient drug or alcohol rehabilitation, they become a full-time resident of their chosen program. They receive targeted care and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They may live alone in an assigned room or board with a roommate, eat meals at their facility, and go to structured one-on-one or group therapy sessions several times per day.
For many, one crucial benefit of inpatient treatment is that it separates clients from the substance completely. They are also removed from the environment in which they were used. This will allow clients to better focus on their recovery, all under the trained guidance and supportive care of a professional addiction treatment team.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a multifaceted disease. Effective treatment for substance use disorders should adhere to several principles. Some of these include:
- Treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.
- Therapies should be readily available.
- Treatment should address any other issues that are present in addition to substance use.
- More extended treatment periods yield better outcomes. A stay of 90 days or more in treatment may optimize treatment outcomes.
- Behavioral therapies will be the mainstay of treatment in helping people to maintain abstinence.
- Testing for infectious diseases and education on harm reduction should be available in the program. Programs can help link patients to treatment if they test positive for any illnesses and offer to counsel.
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 Hillbom, Matti; Pieninkeroinen, Ilkka; & Leone, Maurizio. “Seizures in alcohol-dependent patients: epidemiology, pathophysiology and management.” CNS Drugs. 2003.