Seizures can be a severe and life-threatening complication of alcohol withdrawal. They occur in approximately 5% of people who undergo alcohol withdrawal.1 Although having an occasional drink doesn’t normally increase the risk of seizures, people who drink heavily may have an increased risk, especially when they suddenly stop drinking.2
If you or someone you care about abuses alcohol, you might be concerned about the negative consequences of drinking too much. Below, you’ll learn more about seizures, how they can be linked to alcohol use, abuse and alcoholism, and how to know whether you or someone you love might be addicted to alcohol.
What Are Seizures?
Seizures are a type of electrical disturbance in the brain that can cause a variety of mild to severe symptoms; depending on the type of seizure, they can last for just a few seconds to several minutes.3 While most people associate seizures with convulsions (meaning the body shakes quickly and uncontrollably), not all seizures cause this symptom.3 The two main types of seizures are:1,3, 4, 5
- Generalized Seizures: These types of seizures affect all areas of the brain and include absence (or petit mal) seizures, which cause symptoms such as staring into space or blinking quickly, and tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizures, which cause convulsions, loss of consciousness, falling to the ground due to muscle contractions, and, in some people, screaming or loss of bladder control. Tonic-clonic seizures are the most common seizure type to occur due to alcohol withdrawal.
- Focal Seizures: Also known as partial seizures, these affect one side of the brain. They occur due to trauma or any type of focal (meaning occurring in one region of the brain) injury that leaves scars, such as stroke or meningitis, and cause mild to severe symptoms such as twitching, changes in sensations (such as smell or taste), confusion, or lack of responsiveness. Focal seizures can sometimes turn into generalized seizures.
Alcohol-related seizures appear 6-48 hours after the last drink in individuals who chronically use excessive amounts of alcohol.6 They are usually single or in brief clusters and are typically generalized tonic-clonic nonfocal.7 A withdrawal seizure is a strong risk factor for experiencing progressively severe withdrawal symptoms, as well as a fourfold increase in mortality.8 In a study of 140 patients who experienced an alcohol-related seizure, 54% had another seizure etiology, such as traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, cerebrovascular accident, etc.9
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurring seizures.4 In the U.S., it affects around 2.3 million adults and 450,000 children and teenagers.10 People who experience seizures may develop epilepsy, however, not everyone who has a seizure is epileptic.10 People are diagnosed as epileptic when they have had 2 or more seizures.4
For many people, the cause of seizures is unknown. However, risk factors can include:11
- Developmental brain abnormalities.
- Infections, such as HIV or viral encephalitis.
- Alcoholism or alcohol withdrawal.
- Traumatic brain injury.
- Stroke or heart attack.
- Brain tumors.
- Other problems that disturb neuronal activity in the brain, including alcoholism or alcohol withdrawal, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain inflammation.
Can Alcohol Trigger a Seizure?
Longstanding alcohol abuse and binge drinking for months or years is associated with a higher risk of seizures.7 Small amounts of alcohol do not typically cause seizures.2 Binge drinking is classified as more than 5 drinks for males and more than 4 drinks for women within a in 2-hour period.12
A condition called status epilepticus occurs in about 10% of alcohol withdrawal seizures.2 This is a condition that can occur when seizures occur close together for several minutes.13
Research examining alcohol and seizures has had mixed results, although researchers have been able to identify some solid risk factors. It’s well-documented that experiencing seizures during an incident of alcohol withdrawal increases the severity of the next alcohol withdrawal as well as the likelihood of experiencing another seizure or the withdrawal progressing to delirium tremens.7
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when heavy alcohol users suddenly stops drinking. Symptoms of withdrawal can be mild to severe and may include the following:14
- Mood swings.
- Clammy skin.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Rapid heart rate.
Because alcohol withdrawal can have uncomfortable or life-threatening symptoms, those wanting to quit alcohol, medical supervision is recommended to detox as safely and comfortably as possible.15
A severe complication of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens, which can occur between 48 and 96 hours after the last drink (and in some cases up to 10 days later).15
Symptoms may include:15
- Delirium (sudden confusion).
- Body tremors.
- Agitation or irritability.
- Deep sleep for longer than one day.
- Hallucinations (seeing something that isn’t there).
- Quick mood changes.
- Restlessness or fatigue.
An alcohol overdose (also known as alcohol poisoning) can also cause seizures, although these seizures are typically a result of metabolic irregularities such as alarmingly low blood sugar. Alcohol poisoning occurs when you have so much alcohol in your bloodstream that the parts of your brain responsible for basic life-sustaining functions (breathing, heart rate, temperature control) start to shut down. In addition to seizures, an alcohol overdose can also cause: 16
- Mental confusion.
- Problems staying conscious.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Clammy skin.
- Dulled responses (such as loss of gag reflex).
- Very low body temperature.
If you think someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately.
Is Alcohol Dependence the Same as Alcoholism?
Although alcohol dependence is often a sign of addiction, it does not constitute addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Dependence occurs when your brain has adapted to the presence of alcohol and adjusts its chemistry accordingly.17 As the alcohol wears off, those with a physical dependence can begin to feel withdrawal symptoms which may encourage them to want to drink more to lessen the effects of these symptoms.17 This can also lead to significant cravings and compulsive drinking.17
A person battling addiction may not only suffer from dependence and withdrawal but may also struggle with a loss of control over their alcohol use. They may compulsively abuse it despite its negative ramifications and/or experience emotional distress when they are not drinking.18
To be diagnosed with AUD, a person must meet at least two of the criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), including:19
- Drinking for longer periods or in higher quantities than originally intended.
- Having a desire to cut down on drinking but being unable to do so.
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from its effects.
- Having cravings, or strong urges to drink.
- Experiencing social, family, work, or school difficulties because of drinking or being hungover.
- Continuing drinking even though you know it is likely the cause of problems in your relationships.
- Giving up or reducing activities you enjoy so you can drink.
- Drinking in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so (such as driving or operating machinery) or being in unsafe situations because of drinking (such as having unsafe sex).
- Continuing to drink even though you have a physical or mental problem that is likely caused by your alcohol abuse.
- Needing to drink more frequently or in higher amounts to achieve previous effects (known as tolerance).
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking (known as dependence).
Help For Alcoholism
If you think you may be struggling with alcoholism or have experienced an alcohol-induced seizure, it may be time to seek professional help. For many, choosing to take that first step to seeking treatment can be scary, but you’re not alone. We’re here to help.
American Addiction Centers (AAC), the parent company for Alcohol.org, is a nationwide provider of treatment providers and works to ensure recovery is accessible to everyone in need. We offer a combination of proven therapies and services to meet your individual needs. We are also equipped to treat co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD and others.
Research has shown that 1/3 of people who have completed alcohol addiction treatment have no further symptoms and fewer alcohol-related problems on year later.20 The good news is, with professional treatment and ongoing recovery efforts—even in its most severe form—this disease may be effectively managed.20
Call our hotline at 1-888-685-5770 today to speak to an admissions navigator about your treatment options. All calls are 100% confidential and our hotline is open 24/7. Fill out the form below to see if your insurance covers treatment within an AAC facility.
. Trevisan, L. A., Boutros, N., Petrakis, I. L., & Krystal, J. H. (1998). Complications of alcohol withdrawal: Pathophysiological insights. Alcohol Health and Research World, 22(1), 61–66.
. Epilepsy Foundation. (2013). Alcohol.
. MedlinePlus. (2020). Seizures.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Types of seizures.
. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Types of seizures.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse. Treatment Improvement Protocol. (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4131.
. Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition.
. Jesse, S., Bråthen, G., Ferrara, M., Keindl, M., Ben-Menachem, E., Tanasescu, R., Brodtkorb, E., Hillbom, M., Leone, M. A., & Ludolph, A. C. (2017). Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Mechanisms, manifestations, and management. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 135(1), 4–16.
. Rathlev, N. K., Ulrich, A., Shieh, T. C., Callum, M. G., Bernstein, E., & D’Onofrio, G. (2002). Etiology and weekly occurrence of alcohol-related seizures. Academic Emergency Medicine, 9(8), 824–828.
. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2020). The epilepsies and seizures: Hope through research.
. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2020). What causes the epilepsies?
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.) Drinking Levels Defined.
. Epilepsy Foundation. (2014). Status Epilepticus.
. MedlinePlus. (2019). Alcohol withdrawal.
. MedlinePlus. (2019). Delirium tremens.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding the dangers of alcohol overdose.
. Becker H. C. (2008). Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 31(4), 348–361.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing; 490-491.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.