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Alcohol-Induced Seizures: Why Does Alcohol Cause Seizures 

Alcohol causes persistent brain changes. Sometimes, those changes are so strong that they disrupt normal electrical communication between cells. When that happens, seizures can develop.

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Some people develop seizures after binge drinking. Others have seizures when they try to quit drinking after long periods. These can be life-threatening episodes, so it’s critical to know what they look like and how they’re treated. 

Can Alcohol Cause Seizures? 

Alcohol can cause seizures. Researchers say that the prevalence of seizure disorders in people with alcohol use disorders is about triple the amount seen in the general population.[1] 

Alcohol works by altering GABA — a neurotransmitter that exists within the brain. When people drink, their brains don’t respond to GABA normally, and they feel sedated and calm. When they’re sober, GABA responses return to normal. 

With alcohol use disorder (AUD), GABA responses just never return to normal. The brain is always slightly sedated, and the body is always trying to return to normal. When the balance is disrupted, seizures occur. 

GABA changes are also responsible for the drug cravings and enhanced drinking that are common in alcoholism.[2] So while GABA can cause seizures, it can also make alcoholism worse. 

Types of Alcohol-Induced Seizures

While anyone who abuses alcohol can develop seizures, two types of drinking are very closely associated with GABA alterations and seizures. 

Binge Drinking Seizures 

People who drink excessively can develop seizures. Several factors are to blame. 

Researchers say GABA alterations can cause seizures. And during binge drinking episodes, people can become dehydrated, making seizures worse.[3]

Seizures during binge drinking are especially dangerous and common in people with underlying seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. In one study of people with epilepsy, seizure worsening caused by alcohol was reported by more than 18% of people.[3]

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures 

Chronic drinkers experience profound brain changes. When they quit or try to cut back, they can experience seizures. Researchers say they typically begin between 6 to 48 hours after quitting drinking.[4]

A typical alcohol withdrawal seizure is a tonic-clonic seizure (also called a grand-mal seizure).[4] This episode involves a loss of consciousness accompanied by violent muscle spasms. But some people can experience smaller episodes that don’t seem like full-body seizures. 

About half of all people with alcohol withdrawal will have two to four seizures within the six hours that follow the first.[5] Without prompt treatment, these episodes can be life-threatening.

How to Spot an Alcohol-Induced Seizure 

Seizures are dramatic, and they’re often hard to ignore. Knowing what they look like is critical, as you must get the person help immediately. 

A tonic-clonic seizure, which is most common with alcohol abuse, can cause the following symptoms:[6]

  • Crying out or verbalizing 
  • Falling to the ground 
  • Losing consciousness
  • Jerking arms and muscles 

Take these steps to help someone having an alcohol seizure:[7]

  • Keep them safe. Help them to the floor, and turn them on their side. This ensures they don’t choke if they vomit. Put something soft, like a jacket, under their head. 
  • Stay to help. Don’t leave the person alone. Remain by the person’s side until they awaken.
  • Orient the person. Tell them what happened using a calm voice. 
  • Stay calm. While watching the seizure is difficult, try not to panic. 

Since alcohol-induced seizures often repeat, consider this a medical emergency. Call 911 and tell the operator you think the person is experiencing an alcohol seizure. Ask what you should do until help arrives. The emergency operator will often direct you on further steps to take.

Getting Help for AUD 

More than a third of people with AUD that began more than a year ago are now in full recovery.[8] With treatment, people can develop new habits and stop experiencing alcohol-related seizures. 

When the person you love has recovered from the seizure, explain how treatment works. Outline how counseling combined with medications can ease chemical imbalances caused by addiction. This approach can ease cravings and support long-term sobriety. 

Tell the person you’ll help them find the right treatment program for alcohol abuse. And explain how you’ll be an active part of the recovery process. Together, you can address this issue properly and help the person build a happier and healthier life in recovery.

Updated November 1, 2023
Resources
  1. Hillbom M, Pieninkeroinen I, Leone M. Seizures in alcohol-dependent patients: epidemiology, pathophysiology and management. CNS Drugs. 2003;17(14):1013-1030. doi:10.2165/00023210-200317140-00002
  2. Role of GABAA receptors in alcohol use disorders suggested by chronic intermittent ethanol (CIE) rodent model Olsen R, Liang J. , Brain. 2017;10(45)
  3. Alcohol use and alcohol-related seizures in patients with epilepsy. Hamerle M, Ghaeni L, Kowski A, et al. , Frontiers in Neurology. 2018;9
  4. Update on the neurobiology of alcohol withdrawal seizures Rogawski MA., Epilepsy Currents. 2005;5(6):225-230. doi:
  5. Alcohol-related seizures in the ICU. Seizures in Critical Care Webb Z., Published in 2005. Accessed September 22, 2023.
  6. Types of seizures Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 30, 2020. Accessed September 22, 2023
  7. Seizure first aid Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published January 2, 2022. Accessed September 22, 2023
  8. 2001-2002 survey finds that many recover from alcoholism: Researchers identify factors associated with abstinent and non-abstinent recovery National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published January 18, 2005. Accessed September 22, 2023
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