Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Seizures?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Alcohol Withdrawal and the Risk of Seizures

Alcohol abuse can affect every area of an individual’s personal and professional life. Not only can excessive drinking strain interpersonal relationships, but too much alcohol can harm the body as well. Because chronically abusing alcohol can lead to addiction, physiological dependency can make it difficult to stop drinking even if alcohol consumption is affecting a person’s health. When an individual has become dependent on alcohol, he or she may experience alcohol withdrawal when abstaining from drinking. Withdrawal can trigger serious symptoms like seizures. Entering a treatment for alcohol use disorder can minimize the risk of seizures and other potentially life-threatening symptoms. 

Alcohol Use Disorder

Regular alcohol consumption may begin as a way to bolster confidence in social settings or unwind after work or on weekends. Over time, the body adapts to frequent consumption and needs more alcohol to achieve the same effect. The term alcohol use disorder (AUD) refers to a spectrum that includes varying degrees of alcohol abuse, dependency, and addiction. Alcohol use becomes disordered when the individual has difficulty controlling or stopping his or her alcohol consumption. Substance use disorder includes what people commonly think of as alcoholism. 

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse describes any alcohol use that risks health or safety or causes other alcohol-related issues. Although binge drinking may be viewed by many as a mostly harmless celebratory activity, it can pose health and safety risks. Therefore, binge drinking is classifiable as alcohol abuse. 

Alcohol abuse can range from mild to severe. The problem generally escalates over time, and the health and safety risks also escalate. Getting treatment early can resolve the pattern of alcohol abuse before the individual experiences impaired health, compromised safety, and other negative effects on his or her quality of life and relationships. 

Alcohol Dependency and Withdrawal

When someone develops a physiological dependence on alcohol, abstaining triggers unpleasant and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal often causes:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

The extent of alcohol withdrawal symptoms ranges from mild to severe, depending on the nature of an individual’s addiction. More severe symptoms often include: 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can last from three days to several weeks. The most severe type of alcohol withdrawal is known as delirium tremens (DTs). Symptoms of DTs include:

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinatory skin sensations 
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Fast breathing
  • Excessive sweating

Minor symptoms can progress into major symptoms like seizures. Therefore, even seemingly non-threatening alcohol withdrawal symptoms require medical attention. Contact our team at Alcohol Awareness to learn more about safe, effective treatment options for alcohol withdrawal.

How Alcohol Withdrawal Causes Seizures

Alcohol has a depressant effect on the central nervous system and alters the way gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors work. GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits certain chemical messages from being transmitted through the nervous system. 

When an individual is physically dependent on alcohol, the body adapts to always having alcohol present. Suddenly stopping alcohol after abusing it chronically diminishes the inhibitory effects of the body’s GABA receptors. As a result, the nervous system may become overstimulated. Alcohol withdrawal can trigger a seizure in non-epileptics. People who have epilepsy are especially at risk. Therefore, people who heavily abuse alcohol should never try to stop drinking on their own. Medically supervised and supported detox reduces the risk of seizures and other related potentially harmful health conditions. 

Higher Risks for People With Epilepsy

Alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures in anyone. However, people who have epilepsy are at an even greater risk of having a seizure if they suddenly stop using alcohol after developing a dependency. For individuals with epilepsy, consuming three or more drinks can trigger status epilepticus, a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes as the alcohol leaves the body. Epilepsy medications produce side effects that acutely mimic the effects of alcohol. Therefore, people who are on epilepsy medications may become intoxicated faster and experience more pronounced side effects. 

Studies suggest there may be a link between chronic alcohol abuse and epilepsy. Doctors believe repeatedly experiencing alcohol withdrawal may trigger more activity in the brain and increase the likelihood of experiencing a seizure. 

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Enrolling in a treatment program that includes a supervised medical detox is the best way to avoid alcohol withdrawal-induced seizures. Treatment options are available for people who struggle with mild to severe alcohol dependence and addiction. An addiction specialist can determine the type of alcohol abuse treatment program that is most compatible with a client’s health needs and lifestyle. 

Alcohol Detox Centers

Eliminating alcohol from the body is the first step in the process of overcoming alcohol dependency. Many alcohol rehab programs offer onsite detox. On-site detox is safer than quitting alcohol cold turkey. Detox centers provide supervision and, if necessary, medical support around the clock. At a detox center, medical staff provide medication and other remedies to alleviate and prevent the physical and emotional discomfort that makes detoxing more difficult. 

After successfully detoxing from alcohol, clients usually enter a treatment program. There are several program options available to suit virtually every lifestyle. 

Residential Rehab Programs for Alcohol Abuse

Also known as inpatient treatment, residential rehab programs provide all treatment services onsite. Clients reside at the treatment center, where they also consume all meals, socialize, attend therapy, and participate in rehabilitative activities. Some residential programs also take clients on excursions and social outings. Many programs also offer workshops and opportunities for program participants to attend therapy sessions with their family members. 

Residential treatment programs offer the advantage of removing the client from his or her everyday environment and triggers. The treatment center environment offers structured activities, security, and supervision that clients need to help them avoid relapse. People who are new to alcohol treatment are more likely to be referred to a residential treatment program. 

Outpatient Treatment

After graduating from residential treatment, program participants generally transition to outpatient treatment. Outpatient programs allow for more flexibility. Clients who have work responsibilities or provide care for children or other family members at home may receive treatment at a rehab facility, go to work, and spend time at home. 

Hybrid Treatment Programs

In some instances, an addiction specialist may determine that sleeping at home is the best option for an alcohol rehab client. Hybrid treatment programs provide the structure of a residential program while allowing the client to return home in the evening only to sleep. In the morning, the client returns to the rehab center to receive a full, structured day of treatment. 

Minimizing Seizure Risk When Quitting Alcohol

People who try to quit drinking on their own are often more likely to experience relapse. Consulting a treatment center and entering a medically supervised detox program significantly reduces the risk of relapse, thus lowering the likelihood of withdrawal-induced epilepsy. Doctors have discovered several medications that can reduce the urge to drink as an alcohol-dependent individual’s body adjusts to sobriety. 

Medication for Alcohol Treatment

Several medications are now available to treat alcohol misuse. A doctor can prescribe medication whether an individual is detoxing at home or on-site at a detox center. The most common drugs doctors prescribe for alcohol misuse are:

  • Naltrexone
  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Topiramate
  • Gabapentin

Each drug works differently to make it easier for an individual to reduce his or her alcohol consumption. Using medication can significantly reduce the risk of relapse.

Naltrexone

 Naltrexone is a non-addictive, non-opioid treatment for alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder. Doctors typically prescribe the drug to discourage relapse after the client is no longer dependent on alcohol. Using naltrexone before completely detoxing from alcohol may cause strong side effects like nausea and vomiting. 

In clients who are no longer abusing alcohol, naltrexone blocks the effects people typically experience after drinking. Therefore, consuming alcohol while taking naltrexone no longer produces the same feelings the individual once enjoyed. Taking naltrexone after detox helps alcohol rehab clients maintain their sobriety. 

Acamprosate

Acamprosate is another drug doctors may prescribe to a person who is receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder. Clients may only begin acamprosate after completely detoxing from alcohol, which may be one to two weeks after initially abstaining from drinking. Acamprosate helps individuals stay sober by curbing future urges to consume alcohol. 

Disulfiram

Disulfiram was the first drug the FDA approved for use in treating alcohol dependency. In contrast to naltrexone and acamprosate, which clients can only use after fully detoxing, clients may begin taking disulfiram only 12 hours after their last alcoholic drink. Disulfiram discourages drinking by causing the individual to become physically ill if he or she drinks alcohol after taking the medication. Drinking after taking disulfiram may produce any of the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hyperventilation
  • Tachycardia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Impaired vision

Topiramate

Originally prescribed for epileptic seizures, topiramate may also help people who are alcohol-dependent to abstain from consuming alcohol. Topiramate has not received FDA approval for use in the treatment of alcohol use disorder. Nevertheless, the 2015 United States Department of Veterans Affairs Practice Guideline recommended the drug for off-label use to treat moderate to severe cases of alcohol dependency. Researchers do not currently know exactly how topiramate works in alcohol use disorder cases. Nevertheless, the medication may effectively reduce cravings in people who are dependent on alcohol. 

Gabapentin

Gabapentin is a medication that has also historically been used to treat seizures. Doctors also prescribe the medication for restless leg syndrome and nerve pain caused by shingles. People who are addicted to alcohol may also benefit from taking gabapentin. In the past, detox programs have used benzodiazepine to treat alcohol withdrawal and reduce the risk of seizures and hallucinations. However, gabapentin may be a non-addictive alternative that can be used in combination with other medications. Gabapentin may block the impulse to drink by reducing cravings. While detoxing, clients who take gabapentin are also likely to experience improved mood, less anxiety, and better sleep quality. 

Find Alcohol Detox and Treatment Programs Near You

Alcohol abuse and withdrawal can have a dire impact on overall health by increasing seizure risk and causing other conditions like hypertension. Call our 24/7 Alcohol Awareness hotline, or visit us online. We offer a variety of resources to support, inform, and encourage you as you take the first step toward a more stable, healthier lifestyle. Our addiction specialists can help you or your loved one begin a life of sobriety and wellness. Reach out to us to learn more about on-site detox, residential, outpatient, and hybrid programs that provide alcohol recovery services.

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