Alcoholism: Causes & Risk Factors

Alcoholism is one of the most common forms of addiction that someone in the UK, and elsewhere across the world, might face.

The chances are that you know someone personally, or know of someone, who has had trouble with controlling their alcohol intake.

Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is defined as an addiction to alcohol which can be categorised by the excessive and compulsive consumption of alcohol.

However, just because alcoholism is not a rare addiction doesn’t mean that it isn’t a serious health condition.

In fact, alcoholism can have very serious detrimental impacts on your mental and physical health and well-being. It is associated with higher rates of mental illness including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, as well as many physical health conditions like cancers, heart disease, and problems with your liver.

The addiction is also debilitating in other ways, and it can completely derail your social life, your career, and your financial stability.

For these reasons and more, alcoholism is an extremely serious health condition which often requires serious and complex professional treatment.

Due to this, prevention is an important health strategy to avoid alcoholism. But, in order to understand the best ways in which to prevent alcoholism, you need to understand what causes the addiction and what risk factors are associated with the addiction.

First, however, there are many misconceptions about alcoholism and it’s helpful to have a clear and accurate idea of what the addiction is, what the dangers are, how it can be spotted, and how it can be treated.

Is Alcoholism the Same as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?


One of the reasons why alcoholism is such a common issue is because the use of alcohol, across the UK and much of the Western world, is so prevalent.

This means that alcoholism isn’t the only health condition related to alcohol, and the addiction actually falls under the category of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

An AUD is a medical term and diagnosis that is used to describe someone who is living with an alcohol problem. An AUD can come in varying degrees and can include alcohol abuse (which is a pattern of unhealthy behaviour related to alcohol), as well as alcohol dependence.

Alcohol dependence is hard to categorise and define but is generally considered to be when you experience desires and impulses to consume alcohol that are hard to resist or feel like you can’t complete your day-to-day life and activities without the consumption of alcohol.

Alcoholism itself is a type of alcohol dependence and therefore falls under the category of AUD. However, not everyone who has an AUD is living with alcoholism.

Why is Alcoholism Dangerous?

Partly due to it being perceived as a less serious form of addiction, some people underestimate the extent of the damage that an addiction to alcohol can cause.

Not only is an addiction to alcohol physically damaging, and associated with lower health outcomes in general, but alcoholism is also linked with a decline in mental well-being and an increase in mental health issues.

Specifically, the physical health issues that the frequent consumption of alcohol is associated with include a wide range of illnesses. Most people know that alcohol is damaging to the liver, which filters toxins out of the blood, and this can cause fatigue, physical discomfort, and sudden weight loss.

It is also damaging to the brain, it disrupts the brain’s methods of communication and can have a long-term negative impact on memory.

Alcoholism is also dangerous because it is strongly linked with binge drinking, which carries a strong risk of alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning can be fatal if alcohol is consumed in extremely high amounts over a short period of time, but the long-term impacts of alcohol poisoning also damage your brain, liver, and other internal organs while carrying the risks of higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and long-term liver damage.

Is Any Level of Alcohol Consumption Safe?

New research suggests that the consumption of alcohol is especially damaging to people under the age of 40 and that damage increases with rates of consumption. It also suggests that any level of alcohol consumption, at any age, carries risks and can be linked to lower levels of overall health.

However, it is broadly acknowledged that the measured consumption of alcohol, infrequently and in moderate amounts, does not pose a serious risk to health. In fact, some research suggests that moderate and measured consumption of alcohol can have health benefits.

The key to consuming alcohol safely is to not drink too much at any given time and to not drink too frequently.

A great source of guidance to safe drinking is the Chief Medical Officer’s alcohol consumption guidance, which suggests that people should generally drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and that these 14 units should be spread evenly over 3 days or more in order to avoid binge drinking.

What are the Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholism?

Person looking sad

Some of the indicators that the use of alcohol has developed into alcoholism or an AUD include the following signs and symptoms:

  • Lack of control over the use and consumption of alcohol
  • The increasing importance of alcohol in your life, i.e., neglecting responsibilities in favour of consuming alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol isn’t used, include nausea, sweating, and general physical discomfort
  • Noticeably increased alcohol tolerance, meaning that you have to drink more to achieve the same level of intoxication
  • Inconsistent and patchy memory

What are the Causes of Alcoholism?

Like all addictions, alcoholism is an extremely complex topic with many layers of complexity and nuance.

Partly, this is because there is no single cause of alcoholism, and it isn’t completely understood why some people become addicted to the substance while others can avoid the addiction it.

However, it is understood that there are various causes which contribute to alcoholism. These can be broken down into biological causes, environmental causes, and psychological causes. Each of these causes of alcoholism comes with risk factors that make developing alcoholism more likely.

Biological Causes of Alcoholism

A child who has grown up in close proximity to people suffering from alcoholism, especially their parents, are significantly more likely to develop alcoholism themselves.

This has led many researchers to consider whether or not alcoholism can be caused by genetic factors, or even whether or not the addiction is hereditary.

Genetic Risk Factors & Family History as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

There are genetic risk factors that can be linked to alcoholism and its development, and those genetic risk factors are passed down from one generation to another.

If one of your parents has struggled with alcoholism, and they pass down genetic risk factors to you, you may also be more vulnerable to alcoholism.

However, even if alcoholism is an issue that has impacted your family and parents, the development of alcoholism isn’t set in stone.

You may be more likely to develop the addiction than some other people, but it isn’t predetermined and you can still avoid alcoholism by monitoring your alcohol consumption and your intake, and by taking the appropriate steps to ensure that your relationship with alcohol remains healthy.

It is also worth noting that there are other explanations for why a child who has lived with parents with alcoholism is more likely to develop alcoholism than someone else.

For example, genetics aside, simply witnessing unhealthy relationships with alcohol and being in the presence of alcohol in your childhood could mean that you are more prone to starting to drink at an early age, and therefore more likely to develop alcoholism.

Therefore, this could actually be an example of an environmental factor related to the development of alcoholism.

Environmental Causes of Alcoholism


The way in which humans develop and grow is a result of two things: our genetics and our environment.

For example, our height is partly determined by our genetics, but it is also influenced by external factors, like our diet and physical activity.

The development of alcoholism can be viewed in a similar way, and an environmental cause of alcoholism is a cause that is linked to external factors, and what is going on around you.

Many environmental causes of alcoholism are social risk factors, related to what you spend your time doing, your social circle, and your career.

Lifestyle Choices as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

One risk factor that is related to the environmental causes of alcoholism is our lifestyle choices.

For example, if you spend a lot of your time socialising with your friends at a pub, you might be more likely to consume alcohol at a higher level, and increased rates of alcohol consumption are linked with the development of alcoholism.

Social Pressure as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism


Some people find it harder than others to say “no” to friends, and to control themselves when subjected to social pressure.

If you’re one of those people, and you find that your social group is consistently applying social pressure on you to go out and drink, you might find it difficult to control your alcohol consumption levels.

This lack of control goes hand in hand with alcoholism, and people who find it difficult to manage social pressure can be more at risk of developing an addiction.

Drinking at an Early Age as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

Drinking at an early age is also an environmental risk factor for alcoholism. While you are still in a developmental period of childhood or adolescence, your brain is more impacted by alcohol and it can become easier to develop an addiction to alcohol.

Studies show that people who begin drinking alcohol regularly during their childhood or adolescence are some of the people who are most vulnerable to developing alcoholism further down the line.

Stress as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

One of the most overlooked environmental risk factors for developing alcoholism is high levels of stress. However, one of the leading factors of alcohol consumption is high levels of stress.

Most people who drink alcohol casually might know someone who uses alcohol as a way to relax after a stressful day. Perhaps even you, yourself, can relate to this and have found yourself reaching for a beer or a glass of wine after a long hard day.

For a lot of people, using this as a way to relax every now and then comes with no risks. But, for some people, using alcohol as a way to reduce levels of stress can become a crutch.

If you feel overwhelmed by stress, alcohol can seem like an attractive way to manage your stress because it relaxes you.

But over time, this can develop into an unhealthy dependence which can lead to alcoholism. Stress is also linked to the next environmental risk factor for alcoholism

Career Choices as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

Some career paths are more stressful than others. People who work in unstable jobs with pay that fluctuates, or a high amount of pressure, can find themselves under higher levels of stress.

As explained, these high levels of stress are linked with alcoholism when alcohol becomes relied upon as a way to relax.

Psychological Causes of Alcoholism

It is gradually becoming acknowledged that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and in the case of alcoholism, this is true too.

People who are addicted to alcohol are more likely to develop mental health conditions like depression, and anxiety.

However, the opposite it also true, and many people who have psychological disorders are also more at risk of becoming addicted to alcoholwhen its use as a form of self-medication becomes habitual.

Depression as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

It isn’t uncommon for someone living with depression to also have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, where alcohol is used as a method of numbing feelings and coping with mental illness. This is called self-medication, and it is dangerous because the use of alcohol carries its own risks.

Using alcohol in this way, as a means to mask feelings and deal with events, means that your use of alcohol can quickly develop into dependence or addiction.

You can feel like you need alcohol to carry out your daily activities and to cope with the negative impacts of your depression. Then, feeling like you need alcohol as a crutch is one of the first signs of addiction to the substance.

Anxiety as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism

While the experience of anxiety is often completely different to the experience of clinical depression, alcohol is often used to self-medicate in exactly the same way.

Instead of masking feelings of despair and sadness, alcohol is used to numb feelings of nervousness and anxiety about events occurring in the present or future.

Like with depression, it can then become hard to carry out your life without feeling like you need the support of alcohol to help, and this is an indicator of addiction.

Other Psychological Risk Factors for Alcoholism

Depression and anxiety aren’t the only mental health conditions that are linked with alcoholism, and other illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also linked with addiction for similar reasons around the suppression of symptoms.

Often, mental illnesses like these are treated with medically-approved drugs. However, sometimes if these drugs are used while you’re also consuming alcohol, the two substances can interact in dangerous and predictable ways.

How to Prevent Alcoholism

Because there is no single cause of alcoholism, and because there are so many relevant risk factors, preventing alcoholism can be a difficult and complicated job.

However, the first step to preventing alcoholism is to educate yourself on what alcoholism is, what the causes of alcoholism are, and what the risk factors of alcoholism are.

If you find yourself identifying with various risk factors or causes of alcoholism, you may want to consider how you can manage your consumption of alcohol, or even whether or not abstaining from alcoholism completely is a sensible option.

If alcoholism is something you’re concerned about, you should also vocalise that to the people around you. Of course, talking about a subject like this isn’t always going to be easy.

However, if the people around you are aware of your concerns, they may be more sensitive to how they act around you with regard to alcohol.

Finally, if you are concerned about your use of alcohol developing into alcoholism and you feel like you’re losing control of the situation, seek professional support either from dedicated addiction services or trained medical practitioners like your local GP.

How is Alcoholism Treated?


Professional support and treatment for alcoholism are the most effective, and safest, methods of battling and beating your addiction to alcohol.

Treatment will most often occur in stages, while you are supported through the process of withdrawing from alcohol and managing the withdrawal symptoms.

After the detoxification and withdrawal period, you may begin a course of cognitive behavioural therapy, which will aim to improve your behavioural cycles and response to alcohol and will get to the root cause of your addiction.

You will then be able to attend support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which will help you to stay motivated to continue your path of abstinence, while you learn from the experiences of other people who live with alcoholism.

Why do People Relapse into Alcoholism?

Staying sober and abstaining from the use of alcohol is going to be hard. There will be moments when you are very tempted by the prospect of using alcohol for relief after a hard day or to deal with a stressful situation.

In fact, these are some of the reasons why people relapse back into alcoholism, because of high-stress levels, or social pressure.

Treatment will help you to avoid relapse through the identification of triggers, and by helping you to create healthy coping mechanisms to get through hard times and situations which don’t involve alcohol.

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[1] Non-linear relationships in associations of depression and anxiety with alcohol use

[2] The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism