Diseases & Conditions A - Z
powered by Talix

Alcoholism Causes & Risk Factors

Alcohol addiction is a progressive condition, meaning that a physical addiction to the alcohol develops over time. Alcohol can eventually disrupt the balance of chemicals in the brain that affect judgment, pleasure, and the ability to control behavior. According to the Mayo Clinic, when this balance is disrupted, people often drink to restore good feelings or to forget negative feelings and experiences. (Mayo Clinic, 2012)

In many cases, identifying a singular cause for a person’s addiction isn’t possible. It’s often a collection of events, factors, and behaviors. Addressing the causes and risk factors may make treatment for alcohol addiction more successful.

What Risk Factors are Associated with Alcohol Addiction?

A combination of risk factors may be at play when a person develops a drinking problem. This can include family history, age, or even your circle of friends. However, not every risk factor is associated with an actual alcohol addiction problem. For example, many people face depression and never become an alcoholic. For other people, one issue may be so pervasive, it alone is the cause of an addiction.

These risk factors include:

  • A history of drinking. Drinking alcohol on a regular basis and over an extended period of time can create  physical dependence and addiction.
  • Age. People who begin drinking at an early age have an increased risk of alcohol abuse or dependence.
  • Family history. Genetic factors may make people more susceptible to alcohol dependence. Having a parent who is or was addicted to alcohol increases your likelihood of becoming dependent on alcohol. However, having a family history of alcoholism does not mean you will have the same problem eventually. In that same light, the absence of a family history of alcohol dependence does not always protect you from developing an addiction later in life.
  • Mental health problems. People with a mental health disorder, such as depression, may begin drinking heavily in order to cope with mental or emotional distress.
  • Psychological factors. Some people with alcohol dependence may begin drinking to cope with emotional problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or a need to feel a part of a group.
  • Sex. Men are more likely than women to suffer from alcoholism. However, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), women who are dependent on alcohol are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and may develop medical complications sooner and more dramatically, even if they consume less alcohol than men. (APA, 2012)
  • Social influences. Influences from friends, a partner, or even the media may put you at an increased risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.

Once a person is trapped in a cycle of abusive drinking, whether it began as a way of coping with psychological problems or just as a social outlet, addiction has a way of perpetuating other problems. People who are dependent on alcohol may develop mental health problems or feel as if they must continue drinking in order to fit in with a group of friends. People who abuse alcohol are also more likely to abuse other substances. (Mayo Clinic, 2012)

What Complications Can Alcohol Addiction Cause?

Alcohol dependence affects all areas of your life and health. That includes:

  • domestic or family relationship problems
  • lowered inhibitions and poor judgment, which can lead to dangerous situations or erratic behaviors
  • hangovers, which are often characterized by nausea, headaches, fatigue, and sensitivity to light
  • blackouts, or forgetting events that occurred while you were drinking
  • accidents, such as car wrecks or falling
  • reduced efficiency and poor performance in work, school, or business

Alcohol dependence can affect physical health as well. Alcohol is a depressant. When people consume alcohol, their central nervous system response is slowed, and they’re not able to react as quickly or efficiently as they could when sober. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions, affects emotions, and impairs judgment. As more alcohol is consumed, it begins to affect vital parts of the brain, which in turn interferes with speech and muscle coordination. This can lead to dangerous complications, such as coma, alcohol poisoning, or even death.

Parts of the body affected by alcoholism include:

  • Digestive system. Alcohol can cause inflammation throughout the body. Specifically, the lining of the stomach can become inflamed and prevent the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. Excessive alcohol intake can also damage the pancreas, which produces hormones that regulate metabolism and help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
  • Heart. Alcohol dependence can increase the likelihood that a person will develop high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke.
  • Liver. Long-term excessive alcohol consumption can scar the liver and reduce its capacity to release glucose, which can increase the risk of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Liver damage can lead to a variety of health complications, including bleeding disorders, coma, reduced brain functioning, and liver failure.
  • Sexual organs. Men who are dependent on alcohol are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction. Women may experience irregular menstruation and have more difficulties becoming pregnant.
  • Eyes. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can weaken and paralyze eye muscles.
  • Nervous system. People with an addiction to alcohol may experience numbness and tingling in the hands or feet. Alcohol abuse can also cause erratic thinking, dementia, and short-term memory loss.
  • Bones. Alcohol increases the risk for osteoporosis and fractures.

Alcohol dependence also increases the risk for:

  • Birth defects. Women who drink while they are pregnant put their fetus at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS can increase your child’s risk for birth defects, such as abnormal facial features, hearing and vision problems, malformation of organs, and growth deficits.
  • Cancer. Studies show that people who abuse alcohol regularly have an increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, colon, and breast cancers.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kimberly Holland
Medically reviewed on: Sep 24, 2012: George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
Symptom Search
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Drug Interaction Checker
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Pill Identifier
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Drugs A-Z
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.