Are There Alcohol Seizures? A Guide to Alcohol-Related Seizure Activity

Seizures are disturbances in electrical activity in the brain that can result in a wide range of physical symptoms. There are many different types, symptoms, and causes of seizures. Internal or external factors can lead to alcohol seizures, such as misusing alcohol or having alcohol addiction.1

How Do Seizures Occur?

Alcohol seizures affect brain communication.Everyone is susceptible to alcohol seizures given the right circumstances. The more you encounter internal and external factors, the brain can become more susceptible to a seizure. For example, someone consuming excessive alcohol may be too much for the brain to process, and a seizure may occur.1

The brain functions by creating electrical impulses or messages that tell the body what to do. The impulses travel through neurons that are constantly firing signals to other neurons.2 If you want to remember something important, for example, electrical impulses are generated that involve the part of the brain called the hippocampus. If you’re going to walk or talk, neurons send messages to the areas of the brain responsible for those actions.

With disruption in electrical activity in the brain, neurons get confused and release more electrical impulses than usual. The electrical messages are disorganized, and the brain can’t react normally. Mixed messages go to the parts of the brain where electrical activity disruption occurs, causing atypical symptoms to appear.2

Where seizures occur in the brain determines which parts of the body will be affected. Seizures can be focal—or occur on one side of the brain—or generalized in which they appear in both sides of the brain. There are “provoked seizures” or acute symptomatic seizures.

What Are Alcohol-Related Seizures?

Alcohol, consumed in high doses, suppresses the central nervous system, making it more difficult for the brain to function. The misuse of alcohol changes neurons in the brain and can lead to neurodegeneration, meaning neurons can die or function less effectively.3

When studied, those with alcohol use disorder show brain impairments related to memory and behavior control. Alcohol also affects other areas of the brain, such as:4

  • Frontal lobes—This part of the brain is key in movement, language, and executive function.
  • Cerebellum—The cerebellum helps you maintain your balance.
  • Limbic system—Emotional and behavioral responses required for survival like fight-or-flight, food-related behaviors, and parenting are managed by the limbic system.
  • Amygdala—Scientists believe the amygdala is where the brain processes fear and perceived threats.
  • Hippocampus—The hippocampus is in the temporal lobe and is critical for learning and memory.
  • Hypothalamus—The hypothalamus regulates internal functions such as temperature and weight.
  • Right hemisphere—The right hemisphere of the brain is related to attention, spatial perception, artistic expression, and figurative language.

In each of these parts of the brain, neurons communicate. Alcohol interferes with this communication. Because alcohol is a depressant, it has a sedating effect on excitatory nerve cells and pathways.5 The results of neuron communication interference, or disruption, may include alcohol seizures.

Alcohol-related seizures are most often tonic-clonic seizures, formerly known as grand-mal seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures involve both the stiffening (tonic) and twitching or jerking (clonic) phases of muscles of muscle activity.

Risk factors for tonic-clonic seizures other than misusing alcohol include: 6

  • Previous head trauma
  • Siblings, and other family members who have a history of seizures
  • History of stroke
  • Lack of sleep
  • Complications during birth
  • Lifestyle factors

How Are Seizures Linked to Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking causes changes to regions of the brain that impact neurodevelopment. It can also degrade neural white matter, cognitive impairment, and brain structural abnormalities. These are long-term consequences of heavy drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can occur after binge drinking, with seizures occurring in those who may be at risk.7

Along with damages to the brain, binge drinking can negatively impact other body parts, such as:7

  • Gastrointestinal tract
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Pulmonary system
  • Musculoskeletal system

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Seizure?

Seizures can occur during alcohol withdrawal. Not everyone who stops consuming alcohol suddenly will have episodes, but seizures can occur between six and 48 hours after a person stops drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal seizures occurring in the early stages of withdrawal are typically “provoked seizures,” meaning something specific happened to cause the alcohol seizure, such as misusing alcohol. But alcohol consumption may be one of several reasons for the seizure. Reports suggest considering all risk factors in combination with alcohol withdrawal seizures.8

The rarest yet most dangerous withdrawal symptom involving seizures is delirium tremens (DTs), which usually appear after 48 hours of alcohol withdrawal and can last up to five days. DT symptoms may include shaking, fever, hallucinations, disorientation, and alcohol withdrawal seizures. For some, DTs can be fatal.

Those at risk for severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include those with the following:9

  • Previous seizures or DTs during alcohol withdrawal
  • Use of other substances, such as benzodiazepines
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Severe alcohol dependence
  • Abnormal liver function
  • High blood alcohol concentration

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How Do Alcohol-Related Seizures Affect People With Epilepsy?

In a recent study, 37 out of 204 participants with epilepsy who excessively consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months reported having a seizure. Researchers noted that binge drinking and heavy alcohol misuse suppress natural inhibitory neurotransmitters, including glutamate and GABA.10

Brain activity associated with alcohol is initially suppressed, reducing the risk of seizures. However, after binge drinking measured brain activity indicates a higher risk of seizure activity. The time it takes for a seizure to occur varies among those with seizure disorders. It can happen shortly after cessation of alcohol or hours later when coping with a hangover, especially for those with generalized genetic epilepsy.10

What Does an Alcohol Seizure Look Like?

Signs of an alcohol withdrawal seizure are varied and different for each person. However, a person may be having an alcohol-related seizure if they exhibit:11

  • Jerking of the extremities
  • Staring or “zoning out”
  • Stiffening or rigidity
  • Repetitive motor activity
  • Changes in breathing
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Stupor
  • Involuntary tongue biting
  • Cognitive impairment

After a seizure ends, post-seizure symptoms may continue. Continue to check in with the person even if they seem fine or try to convince you they feel fine. Signs that can appear between minutes and two weeks after the alcohol seizure include anxiety, depression, agitation, mood swings, and mania. Post-seizure, physical signs may consist of excessive salivation, oversleeping, vomiting, inappropriate laughter, and sighing a lot. Even more severe symptoms may appear for some, such as migraines, psychosis, delirium, and memory loss.12

How Can I Help Someone Having an Alcohol-Related Seizure?

You can do certain things to help someone having an alcohol-related seizure. First, remain calm. Although it can be stressful, remaining calm will help you and the person having a seizure. Other things you can do:13

  • Keep them safe—If they fall or need to lie down, remove objects around them that could harm them. If they want to walk around, make sure they do not walk into dangerous areas.
  • Position them—If they are lying on the floor, roll them onto their side if they get sick. If possible, help them stay seated comfortably.
  • Allow movements—Don’t stop body jerking movements by holding someone down or preventing them from moving.
  • Do not leave them—Stay with them until medical help arrives or the seizure ends.

If you feel their life is in danger at any time, call for help. Reports suggest contacting 911 if the person:14

  • Has a seizure that lasts for more than five minutes
  • Has multiple alcohol withdrawal seizures in a row
  • Is struggling to breathe
  • Is going in and out of consciousness
  • Has other injuries or underlying medical conditions
  • Is injured during a seizure

If you aren’t sure how to help the person having a seizure, call 911 and follow the operator’s instructions.

What Should I Do After an Alcohol-Related Seizure?

Seizures occurring after misusing alcohol, whether binge drinking or long-term misuse, could be a sign of a much bigger problem. If alcohol withdrawal seizures are a symptom of alcohol withdrawal, that means the body may be dependent on alcohol to function.15

Seizures may not be the only symptom of withdrawal. They may accompany additional symptoms like shaking, sweating, flu-like symptoms, muscle cramps or spasms, digestive problems, and irritability.

An alcohol assessment will help determine if a person experiencing alcohol-related seizures need treatment for a possible alcohol use disorder. The assessment process involves meeting with a licensed alcohol use disorder therapist at a treatment facility or detox center. It is a safe, confidential place where you can be honest about alcohol misuse. Together, you can create a treatment plan based on your physical, emotional, and medical needs.

Assessments help treatment professionals figure out if a problem exists and, if so, determine the diagnosis. Then, they will make treatment recommendations, if needed. They will use multiple assessment tools to get an accurate portrait of your current alcohol misuse, as well as your and your family’s history with alcohol misuse.

Your provider may recommend specific services based on your seizure history. For example, if you have experienced seizures, you may need to participate in inpatient detox supervised by medical professionals rather than detoxing in an outpatient setting.

Our specialists can discuss your treatment options at 800-839-1686Who Answers?.

Resources

  1. Huff, J.S. & Murr, N. (2021). Seizure. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  2. Stafstrom, C. E., & Carmant, L. (2015). Seizures and Epilepsy: An Overview For Neuroscientists. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 5(6), a022426.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol and the Brain.
  4. Squeglia, L. M., Jacobus, J., & Tapert, S. F. (2014). The Effect of Alcohol Use on Human Adolescent Brain Structures and Systems. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 125, 501-510.
  5. Mukherjee, S. (2013). Alcoholism and Its Effects on the Central Nervous System. Current Neurovascular Research, 10(3), 256-62.
  6. Costin, B. N., & Miles, M. F. (2014). Molecular and Neurologic Responses to Chronic Alcohol Use. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 125, 157-171.
  7. Molina, P. E., & Nelson, S. (2018). Binge Drinking’s Effects on the Body. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 39(1), 99-109.
  8. Mirijello, A., D’Angelo, C., Ferrulli, A., Vassallo, G., Antonelli,M., Caputo, F., Leggio, L., Gasbarrini, A., & Addolorato, G. (2015). Identification and Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Drugs, 75(4), 353-365.
  9. Rahman, A. & Paul, M. (2021). Delirium Tremens. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  10. Hamerle, M., Ghaeni, L., Kowski, A., Weissinger, F., & Holtkamp, M. (2018). Alcohol Use and Alcohol-Related Seizures in Patients With Epilepsy. Frontiers in Neurology, 9, 401.
  11. Kumar A, Maini K, Arya K, & Sharma, S. (2021). Simple Partial Seizure. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  12. Anwar, H., Khan, Q. U., Nadeem, N., Pervaiz, I., Ali, M., & Cheema, F. F. (2020). Epileptic Seizures. Discoveries, 8(2), e110.
  13. National Institute of Health. (2021, September 01). How to Help Someone Who Is Having a Seizure. MedlinePlus Magazine.
  14. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Seizure First Aid.
  15. Newman, R.K,. Stobart Gallagher, M.A. & Gomez, A.E. (2021). Alcohol Withdrawal. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

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