Epilepsy and Alcohol

Overview

The issue of epilepsy and alcohol consumption can be very confusing. Is it safe to drink alcohol with a diagnosis of epilepsy? Can alcohol cause epilepsy to develop?

Excessive drinking can make seizures more likely because of the effect of the alcohol on the brain. It can also interact with antiepileptic medications making them less effective. Late nights, missed meals or missed dosages of antiepileptic medication, all of which can be associated with heavy drinking, can trigger seizures.

Assessing the Risk

Half a pint of standard strength beer, one standard glass of wine, a small glass of sherry or a single measure of spirits each contains about one unit of alcohol. Most people with epilepsy find they can have one or two units of alcohol, perhaps more, without this increasing the chances of having a seizure. Other people find that even a small amount of alcohol triggers their seizures and consequently may choose not to drink alcohol at all.

Antiepileptic Medication

Anyone taking drugs that act on the brain - like antiepileptic medication - is likely to be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. The intoxicating effects of the alcohol will be increased. It is also worth bearing in mind that the alcohol can exaggerate some side effects of antiepileptic medication. For example, carbamazepine can cause dizziness, drowsiness or headaches, all of which can be made worse by alcohol consumption. This does not mean that people with epilepsy should miss taking their antiepileptic medication before having a drink. They are far more likely to have a seizure by doing this than by having an occasional drink.

Can Alcohol Cause Epilepsy?

A ‘binge’ on alcohol can cause a seizure, even in people who do not have epilepsy. Such seizures can be due to alcohol withdrawal, toxic effects of alcohol, too much fluid, metabolic changes in the body and vitamin or nutritional deficiencies. Studies suggest that alcohol withdrawal seizures usually happen 7 to 48 hours after reducing or stopping excessive or prolonged alcohol intake.

Some people who continue to drink large quantities of alcohol and who experience further seizures are quite likely to develop epilepsy as a result of this. Even if alcohol consumption is stopped altogether, the seizures may continue unless antiepileptic medication is introduced and seizure control gained.

Conclusion

Alcohol can make seizures more likely to occur. It can make medication side effects worse. And antiepileptic medications can exaggerate the effects of the alcohol. Excessive or heavy drinking is likely to increase the risks of seizures and lead to other health problems. Taken in moderation, however, many people with epilepsy will be able to enjoy an alcoholic drink. Other people will have decided that alcohol is not for them, perhaps because they don’t want to take the risk, or experience has taught them that even moderate drinking can make their epilepsy worse.

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