Seeing someone experience a seizure can be frightening. You should call 911 immediately if you witness someone having a seizure. The following article explains which illegal drugs cause seizures.

Anything that disrupts the normal connections between the nerve cells in the brain can cause a seizure. This includes head injury, concussion, recreational drug use, and withdrawal. A person is said to be epileptic when they have two or more seizures that were not caused by some known medical condition, like low blood sugar or alcohol withdrawal. According to Epilepsy Action, stress, lack of sleep, missing meals, alcohol, and recreational drugs make seizures more likely.

It’s not known precisely how stress sets off seizures. But experts say that many people who are stressed often change eating or sleeping habits, feel anxious or depressed, and abuse substances. All these things have the potential to increase the risk of having a seizure.

Alcohol and recreational drugs are particularly risky. According to Epilepsy Action, drinking more than modest amounts of alcohol in a day could increase the chances of getting seizures.

The risk is even higher when alcohol is leaving the body. That is around 6-48 hours to a few days after a person stops drinking. Usually, it’s because alcohol causes intoxication through effects in diverse ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors. Illicit and prescription drugs can also trigger seizures because of the changes they make in the brain and because there’s no telling over what goes into the drugs.

What’s a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden intense burst of electrical activity between the brain cells. It can cause temporary changes in movements, feelings, behavior, and levels of consciousness.

When the disruption of electrical activity happens in one part of the brain, they’re called partial seizures or focal seizures. But when they involve all sides of the brain, they’re referred to as generalized seizures. Again, seizures can be a single event due to an acute cause, like drug use, or they can recur.

 

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Other types of seizures include:

Onset seizures 

Also known as focal onset or partial seizure, onset seizures occur in just one area of the brain. Depending on which side they occur, these seizures may affect vision, mood changes, and unusual eye or head movements.

Studies show that heroin use is a risk factor for new-onset seizures. Cocaine, however, isn’t a significant risk factor for first-time seizures. On the other end of the spectrum is marijuana, which acts as a protective factor for new-onset seizures. This is according to one study published on Pubmed.gov.

Atonic seizures and illicit drug use

Atonic seizures affect both parts of the brainThey are generalized and start with a sudden loss or drop of tone affecting the trunk, head, or whole body. In atonic seizures, muscle suddenly becomes limp. The head may nod or drop forward, eyelids may droop, and the person may drop things.

Tonic-clonic seizures (previously, grand-mal seizures)

Tonic-clonic seizures are generalized seizures that make one lose consciousness, shake, and stiff. A person may also bite their tongue or lose control over their bladder. In one study of cocaine-induced seizures by the National Institutes of Health, 42 of 43 patients evaluated for cocaine-induced seizures experience a single tonic-clonic seizure. One developed status epilepticus.

Myoclonic seizures

Myoclonic seizures are generalized seizures characterized by brief shock-like jerks of muscles. The muscle contractions are incredibly brief (<0.1 seconds). A cluster of myoclonic seizures can be ongoing and turn into a tonic-clonic seizure.

People who get seizures often present with one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Stiffening of the body.
  • Jerking movements of the legs and arms.
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control.
  • Breathing problems.
  • Falling suddenly for no apparent reason.
  • They also stare into space.

Recreational drugs that can cause seizures

Cocaine and seizures

Cocaine is one of the top causes of drug- and toxin-induced seizures. In fact, according to Science Direct, it is the most epileptogenic of the commonly abused illicit drugs. Cocaine comes in two major forms:

  • As the almost pure free base (or crack) that’s ignited for hot-fume inhalation.
  • As the often impure hydrochloride powder that’s inhaled by snorting.

 

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All forms of cocaine are dangerous and can cause seizures within seconds to hours after use. Cocaine-induced seizures are usually generalized tonic-clonic seizures, though they can be partial. These seizures may happen directly from the toxicity of the central nervous system or indirectly from stroke and hypoxemia.

They may happen after long-term abuse, recreational use, or overdose. Seizures are also common among those who stuff or pack cocaine in their body, affecting 4% of cocaine stuffers and packers, with seizures setting in the first two hours. According to NIH, most cocaine-induced seizures result from a pharmacological phenomenon called kindling, where repetitive use of unknown doses of cocaine cause seizure.

MDMA ecstasy and seizures

MDMA, or ecstasy is a common club drug. When taken in high doses, it can cause vomiting and seizures and even lead to death. Seizure onset after ecstasy is mainly linked to its acute systemic effect, which is hyperthermia and hyponatremia.

But additional mechanisms might happen to it as well. For instance, if a person uses MDMA, they may experience confusion, sleep deprivation, and other psychiatric disorders.

This may cause them to forget their seizure medicines and end up triggering a seizure. Studies have also found long-lasting brain damage from stimulant use. Very high doses of amphetamines, for instance, can cause severe seizures, heart attack, and death.

Heroin and seizures

Narcotics like heroin, fentanyl, pentazocine, and meperidine may cause seizures. Large amounts of heroin and other narcotics can lead to a severe lack of oxygen to the brain and cause seizures. Additionally, heroin is cut with unknown substances, some of which are toxic. Seizures caused by these drugs are usually of short duration and don’t progress to status epilepticus.

 

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Prescription opioids

Prescription opioids can increase the risk of seizures, particularly among people with a history of seizure disorders like epilepsy. If used alongside other medications that can lower the seizure threshold, like anti-depressants, the risk can increase.

High opioid dosage may also elicit myoclonic seizure activity in isolated cases, like fentanyl, alfentanil, and sufentanil use. According to reports published on Epilepsy, 8 in 9 patients with complex partial epilepsy have fentanyl-induced epileptiform activity on EEG. Epileptiform activity was recorded beyond the seizure focus in 4 of these patients.

Managing drug-induced seizures

Most drug-induced seizures manifest as tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures. Convulsive muscle activity, if extended, can cause health issues like hypoxia, hypercarbia, and hyperthermia. Management of drug-induced seizures includes:

 

  • Airway management with adequate ventilation and oxygenation.
  • Stabilization of heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Rapid bedside testing of body temperature and glucose concentration.
  • Hyperthermia needs immediate medical attention to prevent end-organ severe damage or death.

 

It’s also a good idea to seek addiction treatment to prevent future seizures from happening. Various addiction treatment centers exist to help people who abuse illegal drugs quit, and lead healthy lives.