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  • Quitting alcohol can be more dangerous than some people think. It’s not as simple as quitting and trying not to relapse. Quitting alcohol can lead to a higher risk of seizures, one of the many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome

    This is one of the reasons healthcare professionals recommend going into a detox program instead of trying to stop substance use on your own. The seizures can be life-threatening.

    Causes Of Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

    Heavy alcohol use can lead to alcohol dependence and alcohol addiction. Stopping once you’ve built up a dependence is what brings on serious issues like alcohol withdrawal seizures.

    These types of seizures are classified as generalized tonic-clonic seizures and are the most severe type of seizure that can occur due to alcohol withdrawal. They are different from other types of seizures that are due to genetics or other forms of epilepsy.

    Heavy Drinking & An Unbalanced Central Nervous System

    Heavy alcohol consumption slows the activity of the central nervous system (CNS) by binding to the receptors of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), increasing its relaxing effects. 

    Heavy drinking also decreases the actions of glutamate, another neurotransmitter that excites the nervous system.

    Over time, the central nervous system becomes used to these changes and results in alcohol dependence. Then, when a person stops their alcohol intake,  the system becomes unbalanced, resulting in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. 

    With alcohol withdrawal, the nervous system becomes especially sensitive and that can lead to seizures. Alcohol withdrawal seizures may occur anytime from 6-48 hours after quitting alcohol. 

    What Do Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures Look Like?

    Alcohol withdrawal seizures are likely brief and don’t have an aura, meaning there is no feeling or warning before they start. They tend to occur in a cluster of 1-3 seizures with a short period of time in between. 

    Delirium Tremens

    The seizures can lead to delirium tremens or DTs. DTs are considered one of the most severe effects of alcohol withdrawal and if they happen, can occur around 3-5 days after the last drink.

    Symptoms of DTs include:

    • uncontrollable tremors
    • severe disorientation
    • hallucinations (visual and auditory)
    • heart racing, or irregular heartbeat
    • high blood pressure
    • heavy sweating
    • seizures
    • coma and death
    • agitation or irritability.
    • deep sleep for longer than one day
    • quick mood changes
    • restlessness or fatigue

    Delirium tremens happens in only about 5% of people who go through alcohol withdrawal, but it kills up to 1 in 20 people who develop it, according to Harvard Medical School.

    Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

    Treatment for alcohol withdrawal seizures can be tricky. Anticonvulsant medications don’t always work on alcohol-related seizures.

    Supervised Detox

    Because of the severity of alcohol withdrawal seizures, it’s likely recommended that you seek treatment at a detoxification center or an inpatient or outpatient program that includes medically supervised detox. 

    These programs have trained professionals who can ensure the symptoms don’t become fatal and they can also take care of any mental health issues that may occur. 

    Additionally, they can provide patients with medications as symptoms appear and make the management of alcohol withdrawal more bearable in general.

    Some of the medications that may be used during detox include:

    • benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan)
    • baclofen
    • haloperidol
    • carbamazepine 
    • clonidine

    Detox At Home

    If you’re not going to a detox center, you should at least see a healthcare provider and ensure you get lots of fluids, regular meals, and rest. It’s also recommended to take a thiamine supplement as heavy drinking can lead to a deficiency.

    You should also have someone stay with you. If the seizures or other withdrawal symptoms become too serious, someone either needs to call 911 or take you to an emergency department.

    The most severe withdrawal symptoms need to be addressed immediately and can include:

    • multiple bouts of seizures
    • slow, irregular breathing
    • chest pain
    • sudden weakness on one side of your body
    • heavy bleeding or vomiting blood
    • drowsiness
    • fainting
    • rapid heart rate
    • hallucinations
    • high fever
    • pain in your upper abdomen that gets worse

    If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder, call our helpline today and find the treatment options that are right for you.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Harvard Medical School - Alcohol Withdrawal
    National Library of Medicine- Anticonvulsants for the Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome and Alcohol Use Disorders
    National Library of Medicine - Update on the Neurobiology of Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures
    National Library of Medicine: StatPearls - Alcohol Withdrawal

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on June 23, 2021
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