Seizures during alcohol withdrawal are a very real danger, and it’s important for people who are quitting alcohol to be aware of this life-threatening risk. Chemical changes that occur in the brain during alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures, especially when someone progresses into more severe stages of withdrawal. These seizures can be dangerous and increase the risk of injury or even death.
Can Alcohol Trigger Seizures?
Although withdrawing from alcohol does increase your risk of a seizure, alcohol use is very unlikely to trigger a seizure. This is because alcohol interacts with receptors in your brain called GABA receptors, and these receptors increase what doctors call the seizure threshold. A higher seizure threshold means that it is harder for your brain to spontaneously develop seizures, while a lower seizure threshold means it is easier and more likely that you will spontaneously have a seizure. Using alcohol raises your seizure threshold, making seizures less likely.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Seizures
During alcohol withdrawal, you are more likely to have seizures. This risk is caused by chemical changes in the brain that lower the seizure threshold. As symptoms become more severe, the seizure threshold lowers and seizures become more likely.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking?
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur because the brain compensates for heavy, prolonged alcohol use that over-stimulates GABA receptors. With constant alcohol use, the brain decreases the sensitivity of these receptors. When alcohol use is suddenly stopped, GABA receptors are not sensitive enough to function normally, and the brain must readjust their sensitivity.
During this period, the decreased sensitivity of GABA receptors causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms. One of these symptoms is a lowered seizure threshold that increases the risk of seizures.
Alcohol Withdrawal-Induced Seizure Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures on its own, but it can also increase the risk of seizures in those who are prone to seizures. Some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal-induced seizures include:
- Uncontrollable tenseness of muscles
- Uncontrollable convulsions of muscles
- Periods that cannot be remembered
- Periods of suddenly not responding
Seizures will typically last between 30 seconds and two minutes. Seizures that last longer than two minutes are medical emergencies and must be treated right away in a hospital.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures
Anyone withdrawing from alcohol has some degree of risk for developing seizures. However, these seizures are most likely to occur in those with more severe withdrawal symptoms. This will usually include people who have used alcohol heavily for a prolonged period of time.
While the severity of alcohol withdrawal directly affects the risk of developing seizures, anything that decreases the seizure threshold can also increase the risk of seizures during alcohol withdrawal. These risk factors can include:
- Underlying medical problems, such as epilepsy
- Missing prescribed medications
- Excessive tiredness
- Lack of food
- Use of certain medications
A doctor can help you determine whether you are at a higher risk for alcohol withdrawal seizures based on your medical background.
Are Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures Dangerous?
Alcohol withdrawal seizures can be dangerous. During seizures, people can lose all form of control over their muscles. Someone who is standing when a seizure occurs may fall and be unable to catch themselves. Even when lying down, someone who has a seizure could accidentally bite their tongue off, convulse against something dangerous or unintentionally injure themselves in other ways.
Not every seizure will necessarily be harmful, but all seizures have the potential to cause harm. The potential for seizures significantly increases the dangers of alcohol withdrawal.
Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal
Treatment for alcohol withdrawal will normally involve either outpatient or inpatient medical treatment. Outpatient treatment requires regular check-ins with your doctor and taking the medications that they prescribe. This method of treatment allows you to detox primarily at home, but it is a higher-risk method because you are not monitored as closely. Outpatient treatment for alcohol withdrawal will not normally be used for those who have a moderate to high risk of having seizures.
Inpatient treatment involves actually staying in a medical facility during the detox period. This method of treatment provides access to 24/7 monitoring and care. Inpatient detox treatment also allows your medical team to quickly recognize if you are having seizures, enabling them to respond quickly and keep you as safe as possible.
Get Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Orlando, FL
The Orlando Recovery Center is a state-of-the-art facility committed to helping those with alcohol addiction safely get through withdrawal and achieve lasting sobriety. Our 93-bed center is designed to make the recovery experience as comfortable as possible.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol addiction and concerned about the potential of seizures during alcohol withdrawal, we are here to help. Our professional, caring team of staff is dedicated to your health and safety during the withdrawal process. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you start on your journey to lasting recovery.
We can help answer your questions and talk through any concerns.
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SickKids. “What causes seizures?” March 17, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2022.
Bayard, Max; Mcintyre, Jonah; et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician, March 2004. Accessed April 21, 2022.
Lopez, Maria Raquel. “Seizure Triggers.” Miami VHA. Accessed April 21, 2022.
Schachter, Steven C.; Shafer, Patty Obsorne; Sirven, Joseph I. “How Serious Are Seizures?” Epilepsy Foundation, July 2013. Accessed April 21, 2022.
Kattimani, Shivanand; Bharadwaj, Balaji. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawa[…] A systematic review.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal, December 2013. Accessed April 21, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.