Alcoholism, formally known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is partially hereditary in nature, but other factors contribute to its development.1(how do genes influence alcohol use disorder) Understanding personal risk and the factors that contribute to AUD and other health conditions can help with making more informed health decisions. This page will explore the factors that contribute to the development of AUD, how to assess personal risk, ways to avoid it, and treatments that are available.
Family Influence on Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol misuse and addiction are widely known to “run in families,” and some research may mention an “alcoholism gene”.1(how do genes influence alcohol use disorder) But, multiple genes have an influence on its development, and life experiences can alter gene expression.1(how do genes influence alcohol use disorder)
However, genetics only account for about half the risk of AUD.1(how do genes influence alcohol use disorder) Even people without hereditary factors may develop an alcohol use disorder if they have other risk factors.1(how do genes influence alcohol use disorder paragraph2)
Will I Become Addicted to Alcohol?
It is difficult to definitively know whether any single person will develop an alcohol use disorder. Due to the variety of factors, including life experiences, it is impossible to know for certain if or when a person will “become addicted”.2(what increases the risk for AUD)
However, knowing the risk factors and family history can help a person decide how much to limit drinking. With a greater number of risk factors, it may be wise to limit alcohol use.
A more complete picture of the elements that influence AUD development are:2(what increases the risk for AUD), 3(intro paragraph 3)
- Starting to drink younger. A national survey in the United States showed a 5x greater likelihood of developing AUD for those that began drinking before age 15 than those who waited until age 21 or later. Females are at particular risk when they engage in drinking at an early age.
- Personal drinking patterns. The average number of drinks consumed per day and the number of years of heavy drinking contribute to the likelihood of developing AUD.
- Genetics and family history. Coming from a family with alcohol use disorder can predispose you to AUD through genetics and habit. Children tend to model their parents’ behavior, and witnessing unhealthy drinking patterns in the home may make them more likely to develop AUD later in life.
- Trauma or extremely stressful life experiences. Early life stressors such as abuse or other traumatic experiences increase the risk of later AUD development.
- Other mental health disorders. People diagnosed with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or ADHD have a greater risk of developing an AUD. Many of the same risk factors contribute to both mental health and substance use disorders, and having one condition can worsen the other.4(overview bullet list)
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
Mental health professionals use a list of 11 criteria to help diagnose an alcohol use disorder. By recognizing some of the symptoms, a person may be able to make a more confident decision about when it is time to be assessed or get help. The criteria, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition) (DSM-5), are as follows:5(pg.490 diagnostic criteria)
- Drinking alcohol in greater amounts or for a longer period of time than originally intended
- Having a persistent desire to cut back or quit but being unable to
- Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, drinking, or recovering from alcohol
- Having alcohol cravings
- Chronic alcohol use causing failure to fulfill duties at work, school, or home
- Continuing to use alcohol despite its role in ongoing social or relational problems
- Giving up previously important activities in favor of alcohol use
- Repeatedly using alcohol in physically dangerous settings
- Knowing that alcohol causes physical or psychological problems, but using it anyway
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms or drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms
Not all the criteria need to be present to diagnose an alcohol use disorder.5(pg.490 diagnostic criteria) Only a professional can make a diagnosis of AUD, so if there is a concern, it is best to get a professional evaluation to determine the severity of your condition.2(what are they symptoms of AUD)
How to Avoid Alcohol Use Disorder
Having family risk factors for alcohol use disorder may cause fear or anxiety in some people about their own health. Anyone can take steps to reduce the risk of alcohol addiction when engaging in alcohol use. Some suggestions include the following:
- Avoid drinking alcohol. Complete abstinence from alcohol allows a person to unquestionably avoid an alcohol use disorder and the health risks associated with alcohol use.
- Drink in moderation. The CDC defines moderate drinking as 1 drink or less per day for a woman and 2 drinks or less per day for a man.6(blue box under poor pregnancy outcomes) Setting boundaries can help a person maintain control of their drinking habits and avoid the majority of health complications associated with alcohol use.6(the health effects of excessive alcohol use)
- Avoid excess drinking. Excessive alcohol use is defined as binge drinking, heavy drinking, or any alcohol use by pregnant women or those under age 21.6(opening bullets) Binge drinking is having 4 or more drinks in one occasion for a woman or 5 or more for a man.6(opening bullets) Heavy drinking is defined as 8 or more drinks per week for women or 15 or more drinks per week for men.6(opening bullets)
- Seek to improve other areas of mental health and wellness. Getting help for any existing mental health disorders, poor stress management skills, or past traumatic experiences may help to reduce risk factors for AUD.2(what increases the risk for AUD)
Getting Help for Alcohol Misuse and Addiction
Alcohol misuse and addiction can cause problems in many areas of life.5(pg.490 diagnostic criteria) If alcohol appears to be causing problems in your life or the life of a loved one, help is available. Treatment for alcohol use disorder has been well-studied and implemented with success over the years.2(what are the types of treatment for AUD)
Alcohol use disorder treatment varies widely from professional treatment in an inpatient setting or informal recovery in mutual support groups.2(what are the types of treatment for AUD) The road to recovery is not the same for all people, but some common aspects may include:2(what are the types of treatment for AUD)
- Medication: The FDA has approved three types of medication to help people stop or reduce drinking and prevent relapse: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.
- Behavioral Therapy: Administered by licensed therapists, these therapies can help change drinking behavior through counseling. Specific techniques may address thought processes, motivations, and skills to prevent relapse and cope with drinking triggers.
- Mutual Support Groups: These are peer-run groups aimed at providing support to reduce or stop drinking. They are community-run, usually free of cost, and have multiple meeting times and locations to provide flexibility for those who need help.
A person’s path to recovery should be determined by the severity of their disorder.2(mutual-support groups second paragraph) People with severe AUD may need formal medical help during detoxification to avoid life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, while people without withdrawal symptoms may be able to detox on their own.2(mutual-support groups second paragraph)
Virtue Recovery Centers offers addiction recovery centers in three states across the United States. They are fully equipped to provide medical detox and further components of AUD recovery. Call today to find out whether they could be the right fit for you or your loved one.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2009). Genetics of alcohol use disorder.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, April). Understanding alcohol use disorder.
- Tawa, E.A., Hall, S.D., & Lohoff, F.W. (2016, September). Overview of the genetics of alcohol use disorder. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 51(5), 507-514.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2021, March). Substance use and co-occurring mental disorders.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edition).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, July 11). Excessive alcohol use.
- About the Author
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Nicki Lugo is currently employed as Clinical Director at Virtue Recovery Center in Las Vegas. Nicki is a licensed clinical professional counselor (CPC) in the state of Nevada and a licensed associate counselor (LAC) in the state of Arizona. She is also a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor (LCADC) in Nevada. Additionally, Nicki has specialized training in treating trauma and is a certified clinical trauma specialist (CCTS).
Nicki has earned a Master of Science degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Behavioral Health from the University of Phoenix and a Master of Science in Professional Counseling from Grand Canyon University. Currently, Nicki is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Counseling Education and Supervision at Grand Canyon University. Nicki’s research interests include the use of Positive Psychology interventions with dual diagnosis clients. Nicki hopes to contribute to the body of knowledge in treating substance use disorders.
Nicki’s long-term career goals include advancing in leadership roles within Virtue Recovery Center which is a quickly growing substance use disorder treatment facility. She hopes that one day her research and advocacy will help to save the lives of those who have been affected by substance use. She likes to say that advocacy is her passion and leadership is her superpower.