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Who Alcohol Use Disorder Affects - Teenagers

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Teens and Alcohol Abuse

For young Americans, the adolescent years are a period of change, growth, and exploration. Sometimes this involves experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Underage drinking accounts for 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States.7 More than 90% of this takes the form of binge drinking.7 Binge drinking is drinking alcohol quickly to get drunk for recreational purposes.

Getting alcohol isn't difficult, and many teens don't recognize the negative health risks. Teenagers may even feel more willing to try alcohol, even binge drink, in spite of health or safety risks.

While contributing factors for early-age drinking vary, from environmental to biological, the consequences of alcohol consumption remain the same.

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Can a Teenager Be Addicted to Alcohol?

Underage drinking is a risk factor for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Here are some statistics:

  • According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 401,000 teenagers aged 12 through 17 have AUD.10
  • In a 2006 nationwide survey that included more than 43,000 adults, researchers found an association between early-age drinking and the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence before the age of 25.4
  • Approximately 47 percent of the study subjects who ever experienced alcohol dependence could have been first diagnosed by age 21.4

What are the Effects of Underage Drinking?

Underage drinking can lead to a variety of consequences.

Short-term side effects include:

  • Impaired judgment: Participating in risky behaviors like drunk driving or practicing unprotected sex. Unsafe sex may lead to accidental pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections, such as syphilis or HIV. 
  • Increased risk of injury: Falls, burns, vehicle accidents, or drowning.
  • Violence: Manslaughter, homicide, suicide, sexual assault, or domestic abuse.
  • Alcohol poisoning: Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) may continue rising approximately 30 to 40 minutes after teenagers stop drinking. This means those who drink risk fatal alcohol poisoning without realizing it.

In 2011 alone, approximately 188,000 individuals under the age of 21 went to the emergency room for alcohol-related injuries.

Long-term side effects include:

  • Developing an AUD
  • Liver damage
  • Abuse of other illicit substances
  • Legal issues
  • Premature death and disability

Approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 each year from causes related to underage drinking: this includes 1,900 from car crashes, 1,600 from homicide, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from falls, burns, and drownings.7

Alcohol misuse is the leading cause of death and disability for those aged between 15 and 49.8

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How Do I Know if a Teenager Suffers from Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction may manifest as many symptoms and signs. Some of the most common, though, include:

  • Changes in emotional state, e.g. anger and irritability
  • Academic or behavioral issues
  • Defiance
  • Establishing new groups of friends or peers
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased interest in regular activities or appearance
  • The smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Memory lapse or trouble focusing
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Strong cravings to drink alcohol 
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms

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What are the Risk Factors for Underage Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

There are social and biological factors that contribute to alcohol abuse and addiction. Since each person is different, the causes for an alcohol use disorder can vary.

Social factors include:

  • Peer pressure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Binge drinking
  • Cultural background
  • Easy accessibility to alcohol

Biological factors include:

  • Mental health conditions such as depression, social anxiety disorder, or panic disorder
  • Alcohol is a depressant, and those who drink it may do so to self-medicate
  • Family history of substance abuse or alcoholism
  • Research shows the adolescent brain is more vulnerable to addiction when exposed to alcohol than adults
  • Genetics

According to one study, children of those with a family history of alcoholism were four to ten times more likely to develop alcoholism than those with no family history.7

How to Deal with Teenage Alcoholism

There are a variety of options for addressing teenage alcohol misuse.

One possible approach is mindfulness therapy, which has shown success with adolescents. Oftentimes adolescent substance abuse originates in their home environment - for this, there are various forms of family therapy available.

Motivational enhancement therapy uses monetary and voucher-based incentives to reduce substance abuse.

Because teenagers (unless they're 18) are not legal adults, compulsory commitment to rehab is an option in some states.

Learn more about other approaches here.

If you believe that your child is at risk, please contact your nearest healthcare professional to seek medical guidance and treatment.

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Updated on March 30, 2022
11 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 Feb. 2020.
  2. Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018.
  3. Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Dec. 2019.
  4. Hingson, Ralph W. “Age at Drinking Onset and Alcohol Dependence.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, American Medical Association, 1 July 2006.
  5. Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. . "Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2019: Volume I, Secondary school students. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research." The University of Michigan.
  6. Substance Use Disorders.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.
  7. Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 2006.
  8. Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Jan. 2020.
  9. Quello, Susan B., et al. “Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity.” Science & practice perspectives, vol. 3, no. 1, 2005, pp. 13-21. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  10. SAMHSA. “Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Www.samhsa.gov, 2018.
  11. University of Rochester Medical Center. “College Students and the Dangers of Binge Drinking.” www.urmc.rochester.edu.

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