Drinking alcohol to excess can trigger seizures in those who are already at risk, but many with epilepsy may be able to have one or two drinks without adverse effects.

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. About 3 million U.S. adults have epilepsy.

People with epilepsy may have been told to avoid drinking alcohol, but that’s not always necessary in every case.

Alcohol can affect how the brain works, and for people with epilepsy, it can increase the chances of a seizure. Withdrawing from alcohol can cause seizures, too.

Many people with epilepsy do consume modest amounts of alcohol without provoking a seizure, but this is something that should be discussed with their physician. That’s why you should know what the potential risks of drinking alcohol are so they can make an informed decision.

Read on to learn about the effect of drinking alcohol for people with epilepsy and where to look for help if you need it.

Alcohol can indeed trigger a seizure. Alcohol impacts how the brain works, and anything that affects the brain can lead to seizures.

However, it’s unlikely that one glass of wine at dinner or one old-fashioned at happy hour will have any impact. But there are some alcohol-related behaviors that can. These include:

  • Drinking a lot at once: Binge drinking increases the risk of a seizure. One 2018 study found that 18% of people with epilepsy who had alcohol in the last 12 months as well as a seizure had consumed large quantities of alcohol before the seizure. For this study, at least seven drinks were considered a large quantity.
  • Forgetting meds: Drinking alcohol can impact your decision-making and memory. For example, you may forget to take antiseizure medications. This could increase your risk of a seizure.
  • Alcohol dependence: People with alcohol dependence have a higher risk of seizures than people who drink occasionally. Dependence is the result of your body becoming accustomed to alcohol. When it doesn’t, you go into withdrawal. This change can trigger a seizure.
  • Having a hangover: When you’re hungover, your body, including your brain, can become dehydrated, and dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalance, which may cause seizures.
  • Interrupting sleep: Drinking alcohol can interrupt your sleep cycle. Interruptions to sleep can impair the brain’s activity and lead to a seizure.

Alcohol withdrawal or consuming a large number of alcoholic beverages can also lead to a condition called status epilepticus. This life threatening condition is the result of a severe seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes. It can also occur when a person has more than one seizure in a 5-minute period.

Yes, alcohol can interact with epilepsy medication. Seizure medications may lower a person’s tolerance for alcohol or make the effects of alcohol greater faster. This could increase the feeling of intoxication.

Alcohol may make epilepsy or antiseizure medications less effective, too. If seizures are controlled by medication, this interruption may increase the risk of a seizure.

It’s also possible for alcohol to increase the side effects of anti-epileptic medications.

Make sure to talk with your doctor to determine whether any of your current medications interact with alcohol.

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It’s not always possible to know when a seizure is about to happen, but some people with epilepsy do recognize a few telltale signs.

The biggest warning sign of a seizure is an aura. An aura can be different for each person. It can be a visual disturbance, increased emotional feelings, smell or taste, or some other unusual sensation.

If you have epilepsy and are experiencing an aura, you should alert someone you’re with about what could happen. They can help you get to a safe place where you don’t risk falling and hitting your head or injuring yourself.

Other symptoms of a seizure include rigid, stiff muscles. Shaking or convulsing is also common.

Less common signs of seizures include:

  • unexplained lapses in time or altered level of consciousness
  • blank staring
  • automatisms

Helping someone through a seizure

If you’re around someone who’s about to experience a seizure, make sure to listen carefully to their directions. They may be able to tell whether the seizure is about to happen is life threatening or not. In many cases, they may ask for you to support them without calling an ambulance.

You should call for an ambulance or other emergency aid if one of the following is true:

  • This is their first seizure.
  • The seizure lasts more than 5 minutes or they have multiple in a row.
  • They’re pregnant.
  • They’re injured during the seizure or they have trouble breathing afterward.

When a seizure happens, many people often are completely unresponsive and may have patchy memory as they’re recovering.

Learn more about first aid for a seizure here.

Living with epilepsy

People with epilepsy can tap into a community of support groups, health care professionals, and other resources for support. These individuals or groups may be helpful as you and your family learn about the risks of drinking alcohol.

If you have alcohol dependence, these groups may also be helpful in connecting you to resources that can help you to stop drinking.

  • Epilepsy Foundation: This national organization has dozens of chapters nationwide and can help you find local resources. They also have a 24/7 support line that is staffed by specialists that can answer questions for you. Call them at 1-800-332-1000 or 1-866-748-8088 for Spanish.
  • SAMHSA Hotline: Call 1-800-662-HELP(4357) or visit them online if you need help finding support in changing your relationship with alcohol.
  • FindTreatment.gov: This national database can help people connect confidentially to treatment options for substance misuse.
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Having a glass of wine or beer at a party may not increase your risk of seizure if you have epilepsy. A small amount of alcohol likely also won’t interfere with medications. But that’s not the case for every person.

While there are no official guidelines about alcohol consumption for people with epilepsy, you should work with a healthcare professional to understand your individual risk. Talk with your doctor about the medications you take and any personal experiences with alcohol and seizures in the past.

Make sure to let your friends and family members know how they can best support you in the case of a seizure.