Updated on April 3, 2024
4 min read

What Causes Alcoholism?

Overview: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

If you or a loved one struggles with an alcohol problem, you might be curious about the causes of alcohol addiction.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcohol addiction, occurs when a person can't control their drinking. Someone with alcoholism is preoccupied with alcohol and continues to use it despite the problems it causes.

When not drinking, these people usually experience withdrawal symptoms. Due to tolerance and to avoid withdrawal, someone with AUD must drink more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects.

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

Certain people react more strongly to alcohol than others. As a result, this makes them more susceptible to developing an addiction.

There are genetic, psychological, and environmental reasons for this. Risk factors include:

  • Using alcohol at an early age 
  • Previous history of substance abuse
  • Having family members with AUD
  • Trauma 
  • Depression
  • Other mental health problems

While there are various risk factors, the immediate cause of alcohol addiction is heavy drinking.

The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as follows:

  • For men: more than 4 drinks a day or more than 14 drinks per week
  • For women: more than 3 drinks a day or more than 7 drinks per week

Heavy drinking changes a person’s brain function. It can have long-lasting effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, decreasing their effectiveness. The brain then becomes dependent on alcohol.

Repeat alcohol exposure also destroys brain cells and contracts brain tissue. Heavy drinking changes the brain to make addiction more likely, even if you’re not genetically predisposed to AUD.

Social and Cultural Causes of Alcohol Addiction

A person’s environment alone is unlikely to cause AUD. However, it can increase their odds of developing a problem.

These environmental factors include: 

  • Alcohol regulation laws
  • Advertisements for alcoholic beverages 
  • School, work, or family life 

Young people are more susceptible to peer pressure and messages in advertising. In college, they're exposed to the additional risk factor of binge drinking.

Research shows that the risk for AUD increases when the brain is exposed to alcohol while developing.5 This is a cause for concern when brain development can last into the mid-twenties. 

According to the NIAA, 9 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD.9


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Mental Health and Alcohol Addiction

Roughly 37% of alcohol abusers have at least one serious mental health condition.7

Mental health conditions associated with alcoholism include:

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What Are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

The symptoms of alcohol abuse are based on the behaviors and physical outcomes of alcohol addiction.

People with alcoholism may engage in the following behaviors:

  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking more to feel the effects of alcohol due to having a high tolerance
  • Violent or aggressive behavior when asked about their drinking habits
  • Not eating or eating poorly
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Missing work or school
  • Being unable to control drinking habits
  • Making excuses to drink
  • Continuing to drink despite legal, social, or economic problems
  • Expressing that they may be suffering from a mental illness
  • Spending time with other heavy drinkers

People with alcoholism may also experience the following physical symptoms and side effects:

  • Alcohol cravings
  • Withdrawal symptoms (shaking, nausea, and vomiting)
  • Tremors the morning after drinking
  • Blackouts or lapses in memory after drinking
  • Alcoholic ketoacidosis
  • Cirrhosis

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How Does Alcoholism Develop?
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How Does a Professional Diagnose Alcoholism?

Your doctor or healthcare provider can diagnose alcoholism. They will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your problem drinking habits.

Your doctor may ask you about:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Missing work, school, or losing a job due to drinking
  • Drinking more alcohol to feel ‘drunk’
  • Have experienced blackouts from heavy drinking
  • Attempted to cut back on alcohol but could not

Usually, a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder does not involve a diagnostic test. However, your doctor may also use a questionnaire to help diagnose your condition. 

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How Can You Prevent Alcohol Use Disorder?

You can prevent alcohol use disorder by limiting or reducing your alcohol intake.

If you are concerned, talk to a doctor about addiction treatment options and medical support. Inpatient or outpatient treatment programs can help immensely.

You can also consider participating in: 

  • Individual or group counseling
  • Local AA meetings
  • Self-help programs

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) also has an online tool called NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator, which allows you to find the right treatment.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Here are some of the best treatments for AUD:

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Updated on April 3, 2024
11 sources cited
Updated on April 3, 2024
  1. "Alcohol use disorder." Mayo Clinic, 2018.
  2. Dryden, Jim. “Trauma Increases Risks for Alcohol Problems in Women - the Source - Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source, 2016.
  3. Sartor, Carolyn E. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Dependence in Young Women*.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2010.
  4. Gilbertson, Rebecca, et al. “The role of selected factors in the development and consequences of alcohol dependence.” Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008.
  5. Witt, Ellen D. “Research on Alcohol and Adolescent Brain Development: Opportunities and Future Directions.” Alcohol, 2010.
  6. Quello, Susan. “Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity.” Science & Practice Perspectives, 2005.
  7. Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Health.” HelpGuide.org, 2021.
  8. "Drinking Levels Defined." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH). www.niaaa.nih.gov.
  9. College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (NIH) www.niaaa.nih.gov, 2022.
  10. Smith, Joshua P, and Carrie L Randall. "Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH) www.niaaa.nih.gov, 2014.
  11. Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: comorbidity and treatment considerations.” Alcohol research : current reviews, 2012.

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