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Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Seizures?

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When an alcohol-dependent person stops drinking after a prolonged period of excessive consumption, they can experience severe withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures. Seizures are potentially life-threatening health events that require immediate medical intervention. To avoid experiencing seizures during withdrawal, it is vital to seek professional help, including medical detox, when trying to stop drinking to ensure a safe and successful recovery. If you are struggling with alcoholism or other substance use disorders, contact Guardian Recovery today to learn more about our effective, innovative rehab programs and personalized treatment plans.

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What Is a Seizure?

A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical brain disturbance that can cause changes in behavior, movements, and consciousness. Seizures can be caused by a variety of factors, including alcohol withdrawal, head injuries, and many medical conditions, such as epilepsy. (1)

Seizures vary in duration and intensity, ranging from a few seconds to several minutes. These disturbances can include several phases, which can vary depending on the type of seizure and the individual experiencing them. (2)

Phases of Seizures Include:

  1. Prodrome—This phase refers to the period before the seizure occurs in which some people experience subtle changes that can serve as warning signs. These can include mood swings, anxiety, irritability, headaches, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating.
  2. Aura—This is a brief, subjective period that occurs at the beginning of some seizures. Effects can include visual disturbances, unusual smells or tastes, a sense of déjà vu or a feeling of familiarity or unfamiliarity with surroundings, or emotional changes.
  3. Ictal Phase—This phase refers to the active seizure itself. It is the period when abnormal electrical brain activity causes obvious and measurable symptoms. The symptoms experienced during this phase can vary depending on the type of seizure and may include convulsions, muscle spasms, unconsciousness, altered awareness and senses, and repetitive movements.
  4. Postictal Phase—The postictal phase occurs after the seizure has ended and lasts for minutes, hours, or longer. During this phase, the individual may experience a recovery period and a gradual return to normal. Effects experienced during this phase include confusion, drowsiness, fatigue, headaches, muscle soreness, and difficulties with thinking, speaking, and memory.

Seizure Symptoms Include:

  • Convulsions, shaking movements, rhythmic jerking, or spasms of the limbs or the entire body.
  • Loss of consciousness or altered consciousness.
  • Staring spells, unresponsiveness, or lack of response to external stimuli.
  • Muscle rigidity or stiffness.
  • Sensory disturbances, such as visual or auditory hallucinations, strange tastes or smells, or unusual body sensations.
  • Confusion, disorientation, or difficulty speaking or understanding.

Are Alcohol Drinkers More Prone To Having Seizures?

Heavy alcohol consumption disrupts the normal balance of brain chemicals and increases the likelihood of seizures in individuals who are alcohol-dependent and abruptly stop or significantly reduce their use. Chronic or excessive alcohol misuse can also lead to a condition known as alcohol-related epilepsy, marked by recurring seizures triggered by the use of alcohol itself. The condition may develop after years of heavy drinking, and the risk increases with higher alcohol consumption.

Alcohol can lower the seizure threshold, making it easier for seizures to occur even for individuals without a pre-existing seizure disorder or alcohol-related epilepsy. (3) In addition, it may interact with other factors that contribute to seizures, such as the metabolism and effectiveness of certain medications used to manage seizures.

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What Causes Seizures During Alcohol Withdrawal?

Chronic alcohol use suppresses the activity of excitatory brain chemicals (e.g., glutamate) and enhances the activity of inhibitory chemicals (e.g., GABA). (4) When alcohol is abruptly discontinued, there is an imbalance in these chemicals, contributing to hyperexcitability in the brain and increasing the risk of abnormal electrical activity and seizures.

Are There Early Warning Signs of Alcohol Seizures?

Aside from the prodrome phase, there are generally no specific early warning signs that can predict when an alcohol seizure will occur during withdrawal. However, there are some common factors that may indicate a person is at increased risk. For example, a prior history of seizures may indicate a greater propensity for alcohol-induced seizure activity, and the risk is generally higher in those who’ve used alcohol excessively and for an extended period.

Also, individuals who have experienced severe withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations or delirium tremens, during prior attempts at quitting or cutting down on alcohol use may be at an increased risk of seizures. Furthermore, individual factors, such as older age, co-occurring medical conditions, head trauma, or the use of other prescription or illicit drugs, can contribute to the likelihood of having a seizure.

Is There a Relationship Between Alcohol Seizures & Delirium Tremens?

There is a relationship between alcohol-related seizures and delirium tremens (DTs) during alcohol withdrawal. These are both potential complications that can arise from the cessation or significant reduction of alcohol consumption in dependent individuals. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences.

Characteristics of Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures (AWS) Include:

  • Timing—AWS usually occurs within the first 48 hours after the discontinuation of alcohol use, but can take longer.
  • Type of Seizures—AWS is typically marked by generalized grand mal seizures that involve convulsions, loss of consciousness, muscle rigidity, and rhythmic jerking movements. (5)
  • Frequency—AWS is common during alcohol withdrawal, and individuals with a history of heavy alcohol use are generally more susceptible.

Characteristics of Delirium Tremens (DTs) Include:

  • Timing—DTs usually develop 48–96 hours after the last drink, although they can occur up to a week later.
  • Symptom Complex—DTs is a severe form of AWS marked by a group of symptoms, including severe confusion, agitation, hallucinations, tremors, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, and fever.
  • Risk Factors—DTs is more commonly seen in those with a prolonged history of heavy alcohol use and who have previously experienced AWS or DTs. It is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

Alcohol withdrawal seizures may be an early sign or precursor of DTs. Moreover, some individuals who initially experience alcohol withdrawal seizures may eventually progress to developing DTs if these symptoms worsen.

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Contact Us Today for Help With Alcohol Dependence

If you or a loved one have experienced seizures due to alcohol use or are alcohol-dependent, you may require medical help through a comprehensive addiction treatment program. Guardian Recovery offers a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use disorders and co-occurring medical conditions, including seizures. We implement evidence-based strategies, such as medical detox, individualized therapy, peer groups, and aftercare planning, to ensure each individual receives appropriate, multi-faceted care and support.

Reach out to us today for a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check and learn more about our streamlined admissions process. Our team of experienced professionals is dedicated to helping individuals maintain long-term recovery and improve their overall quality of life. We believe in treating the whole person, not just the addiction, and work closely with each person to develop a personalized treatment plan that meets their unique needs and goals.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.epilepsy.com/what-is-epilepsy
  2. https://epilepsyfoundation.org.au/understanding-epilepsy/seizures/seizure-phases/
  3. https://epilepsynl.com/alcohol-and-epilepsy/
  4. https://www.prevention.com/health/mental-health/a40516912/what-is-gaba-uses/
  5. https://www.epilepsy.com/what-is-epilepsy/seizure-types/tonic-clonic-seizures

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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