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Tracing the roots of alcohol use disorder

Learn about the factors that can increase your risk for alcohol use disorder.

Drinking problems can begin in a number of ways, experts say.

Some of us carry genes that put us at increased risk for alcohol use disorder. Environmental factors such as home life and social pressures also can contribute.

Nearly 15 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder in 2018, reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

The problem with drinking

The effects of alcohol abuse are familiar to many of us: It can ruin relationships and careers and put us at risk for traffic accidents. It boosts our chances of developing cancer of the liver, throat or esophagus. And it can contribute to liver and brain damage.

But despite these risks, a person who is dependent on alcohol can't simply quit drinking. People who develop a dependency have a craving that's beyond the control of their willpower, reports the NIAAA.  

According to the NIAAA, signs of dependence include:

Craving—a strong need or compulsion to drink.

Loss of control—inability to limit drinking.

Physical dependence—withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness or anxiety when you stop drinking.

Tolerance—needing to drink more and more to get intoxicated.

Roots of trouble

Research shows that alcohol use disorder can run in families. Children of people with alcohol dependence are two to six times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But having a parent who abuses alcohol doesn't mean you're destined to abuse it yourself—only about half of the risk for alcohol use disorder is genetic.

Aside from genes, other risk factors for developing a drinking problem include:

  • Being around family members or peers who abuse substances.
  • Using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs early in life.
  • Living in a neighborhood where alcohol and drug use are common.
  • Suffering abuse, neglect or other trauma during childhood.
If there's a history of alcohol dependence in your family or if you have other risks, mention it to your doctor. A physician can put you in touch with groups that can help you avoid alcohol problems.

What parents can do

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents can help keep children from developing alcohol problems by:

Being responsible. Your children will learn many of their attitudes about alcohol from you. So it's important to be a good role model. Make sure children understand that it's not appropriate to rely on alcohol to deal with problems.

Giving children a sense of confidence. Praising your child and providing encouragement can help counter negative peer pressure. Avoid frequent criticism and suggest ways children can deal with stress without turning to alcohol.

Paying attention. Listen to your children and try to provide help when they are doubtful or lonely.

Learn more

These organizations offer more information about alcohol problems:

Reviewed 9/21/2022

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