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Genetics, environment, and personality all contribute to your risk for alcoholism and drug addiction. There are many warning signs of addiction, including complaints from friends and family about your behavior.

By Hedy Marks, MPH

Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

From cocaine to gambling, addiction takes many forms, but alcohol and drug dependency may be the most pervasive forms of addiction. Every year, alcoholism and drug addiction contribute to the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans.


Alcoholism and drug addiction are chronic conditions characterized by changes in the brain that cause a person to have an uncontrollable desire to abuse alcohol or other drugs, despite harmful consequences.


People who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction are not “weak” or “immoral.” They have a real disease that’s caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, environmental influences, and behavior. As with heart disease and other medical conditions, by understanding the risk factors for alcoholism and drug abuse, you can take steps to reduce your chances of developing one of these life-threatening disorders.


Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: Risk Factors

There is no single factor that determines whether a person will develop alcoholism or a drug addiction. A person’s overall risk for addiction is determined by their biological makeup, including genetics, and their exposure to drugs and alcohol.


Risk factors include:


Genetics. Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism or drug addiction can be inherited. This means that if you have a family member with an addiction, you have a greater likelihood of becoming an addict yourself.

Age. Adolescents are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population, due to their inclination toward risky behavior as well as to their biological inheritance. Also, the younger a person is when they start using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a problem.

The people you associate with. Your friends can be a huge influence on how much you drink, or if you use drugs. This is especially true for young people. If you are frequently surrounded by drugs and alcohol, you are more likely to use them, thus increasing your risk of becoming substance-dependent.

Stress. Many people turn to alcohol and drugs as a way of unwinding. However, if you are not careful, your body may require more frequent use of these substances to help you relax, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to addiction.

Mental disorders. People suffering from depression or anxiety disorders in particular are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.

The type of drug used. Drugs that are smoked or injected into a vein are more likely to cause addiction because they produce a quick, powerful effect — they reach the brain sooner than drugs that are taken by mouth. This rapid “high” also fades faster, causing the person to need more and more of the substance to regain the pleasurable feeling.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: The Power of Genetics

People who have a parent or sibling with an addiction are two to four times more likely to become substance-dependent compared to somebody who does not have a relative with an addiction problem, says Marc Galanter, MD, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse at New York University Langone Medical Center and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, both in New York City.


While genetics do play a major role in alcoholism and drug addiction, some people develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol even though no one in their family has an addiction problem. Likewise, not all children of parents with an addiction develop the condition. Vulnerability to addiction varies from person to person. In general, the more risk factors you have, the greater the chance that drug and alcohol abuse will lead to addiction.


Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: How to Reduce Your Risk

If you are worried about becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, the best thing you can do is stay away from them altogether, says Dr. Galanter: “If you do drink, be exceedingly careful and limit it to one or two drinks a day.”


Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: Know the Warning Signs

It is also very important to be alert to the signs of drug and alcohol addiction. You may have a problem if you:


Crave alcohol or drugs

Experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, sweating, nausea, and shaking when you’re not drinking or doing drugs

Find that when you do drink, you drink more than you anticipated

Notice a need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol or take more drugs in order to “feel buzzed” or “get high”

Receive complaints from family or close friends about your behavior

Try to stop drinking or doing drugs, but find that you can’t

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: Where to Turn for Help

Millions of people are addicted to drugs or alcohol. If you’re concerned that you may have a problem with substance abuse, there are places to go for help. The biggest hurdle to getting help is admitting that you have a problem. A quick Internet search can pull up a number of agencies offering alcohol and drug addiction help. However, to make sure you get the most appropriate care, ask your family doctor to recommend a treatment program, or contact the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry or the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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