But what many people aren’t so aware of are seizures caused by other drugs. These can occur as a result of short- and long-term drug use, including with prescription drugs that are used as directed. They can onset as a result of a drug overdose, or they can happen during withdrawal. While drug-induced seizures may be more commonly associated with some addictive substances than others, they are a real risk, they can be fatal and they are capable of changing the lives of real people every day.
In this piece, our mission is to uncover some of the lesser publicized effects of drug abuse and addiction and talk about drug-induced seizures in a way that illustrates their scope in the bigger picture.
How Drugs Cause Seizures
Alcohol, opiates, benzos, cocaine and amphetamines are just the most common substances that can cause seizures in their users.
Seizures, epileptic or otherwise, are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Brain function operates via electrical impulses that send signals to different parts of the body. Looking at it as simply (and unscientifically) as possible, a seizure is sort of like a thunderstorm. For one reason or another, the electrical impulses that the brain uses to communicate go out of balance, and a seizure is a possible result.
While different substances interact with the human brain in different ways, every drug has an effect on brain activity. Some ways that drug-induced seizures occur are well understood, but many aren’t. Here’s a summary of when and how drugs and alcohol can cause seizures from different types of use.
Seizures From Prescribed Drug Use
Not all drug-induced seizures are associated with recreational drug use. In fact, with the increase in the number of prescriptions the average American takes, it’s been known for years that senior citizens, in particular, face a higher risk of seizures as a side effect of the mix of medications they take .
This is an important thing to note because it illustrates the importance of being aware of what you put into your system for any reason, and it shows that nearly every drug is, by definition, capable of affecting your brain activity to the degree that seizures are a possible side effect.
Seizures From Recreational Drug Use
In some cases, underlying neurological disorders like epilepsy can be activated by the presence of certain drugs. For example, one study found that for several reasons, cocaine use actually lowered the seizure threshold for people with epilepsy. Under certain conditions, people who have never had a seizure before may have one because they have cocaine in their system.
Marijuana is not thought to be associated with risk of seizures, but a synthetic version of it certainly is. Spice, also called K2, was legal in large portions of the United States before being banned in most of these places because of a substantial number of people (including non-epileptic users) who experienced seizures from using it .
Another study looked at data on people who had experienced a first-time seizure and the substances they were using at the time. After looking at over 600 patients, researchers concluded that heroin use was a risk factor for these new-onset seizures.
Seizures From Drug Overdose
There are several cases in which using too much of a substance is a risk factor for seizures.
The main culprit in these cases is stimulants, a category that includes cocaine, amphetamines and a variety of prescription medications including ADHD meds. Not much is known about specific toxicity levels or which substances make a person more likely to have a seizure, but there are cases in which a person has entered an overdose state and suffered from a convulsive episode after taking stimulants.
While opiates don’t fall into the category of stimulants, there are cases where they — often when mixed with other substances — can cause the onset of seizures. Fentanyl is one that is known to contribute to seizures , which is especially problematic because it is one of the strongest opiates people are able to use frequently. This means that overdoses are more common with fentanyl and its analogs.
Seizures From Addiction Detox/Withdrawal
This is the area where most people have heard of seizures occurring, especially as it pertains to alcohol detox. In the brain, alcohol molecules bind to GABA receptors, which spark the production of dopamine. Over time, as the brain becomes more and more accustomed to the presence of these depressant molecules, it will essentially rewire itself. When faced with the sudden lack of alcohol in the system, the brain can respond in an extreme way, and potentially fatal seizures can occur.
Alcohol isn’t the only substance that affects the brain by way of the GABA receptors. Benzodiazepines, or “benzos” for short, do as well. These depressant medications are actually used to treat seizure disorders because they slow the electrical impulses in the brain. Once a person is no longer using these drugs, the brain doesn’t know how to respond, and the brain’s electrical system goes out of balance. With benzos, the risk for seizures during withdrawal positively correlates with the length of time on the medication as well as the dosage used.
These are both examples of why it can be extremely risky to try to detox outside of a dedicated medical facility with 24/7 vital monitoring and a plan to wean the person off the substance in question gradually, rather than denying them access all at once.
Complications That Result From Seizures
Seizures are essentially malfunctions of the brain. Similar to a stroke, a seizure can cause long-term brain damage. The odds of long-term issues increase as more and more seizures occur. Some drug-induced seizures do result in death, especially in withdrawal situations.
How to Avoid Seizures
As mentioned, people who experienced drug-induced seizures may have an underlying risk for seizures that they aren’t aware of. It’s difficult to know whether this is the case in any given situation, but the safe option to avoid seizures linked to substance abuse is to seek treatment for any substance use issues that exist.
At FHE Health, we have your best interests in mind. Contact us today to learn more about drug-induced seizures and how you can minimize risk by taking steps toward recovery. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/common-causes-of-drug-induced-seizures  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3726077/  https://www.medscape.com/answers/166464-159479/how-are-convulsions-treated-in-heroin-toxicity