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Teens and Alcohol Abuse

For young Americans, the adolescent years are a period of change, growth, and experimentation. It should come as no surprise then, that alcohol has become the most popular drug of choice among teens during this transitional time.

Despite the fact that underage drinking (under 21 years of age) is illegal, individuals aged 12 through 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed by binge drinking. 

Getting alcohol is not difficult, and many teens do not recognize the negative health and behavioral effects caused by the substance. 

That said, teenagers may 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.

Alcohol addiction could arise and harm those who decide to drink at a young age. 

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol addiction is one of a few names used interchangeably with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).  Although recent, the classification of AUD comes from the American Psychiatric Association. The term refers to a chronic, relapsing brain disorder caused by alcohol consumption.

It encompasses differences between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency and more specifically, describes the impaired ability of an individual to stop or moderate alcohol use.

Even though negative consequences relating to health, social, and professional areas may emerge, the individual must continue drinking alcohol. Not doing so would cause withdrawal symptoms and intensify physiological urges to drink. Symptoms of alcohol addiction can range from mild to severe.


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Can a Teenager Be Addicted to Alcohol?

Yes. Young people who consume alcohol may be at risk of developing AUD. 

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 401,000 teenagers aged 12 through 17 developed AUD. 

In a nationwide survey that included more than 43,000 adults, leading investigators from the Boston University School of Public Health observed an association between early-age drinking and the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence before the age of 25. 

By the age of 21, approximately 47 percent of the study subjects who ever experienced alcohol dependence could have been first diagnosed.

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, as it concerns activities and/or appearance
  • The smell of alcohol on a teenager's breath
  • Memory lapse or trouble focusing
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Strong cravings to drink alcohol 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including vomiting, sweating, and trembling

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What are the Risk Factors for Underage Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

It is important to understand that there is a range of environmental, social, hereditary, and genetic factors that contribute to alcohol abuse and addiction. Since each individual is different, the causes for an alcohol use disorder can vary.

Although, there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances. The health effects are the same especially long term.

Here is an overview of those factors, separated into the following categories:


  • Peer pressure — teenagers may drink alcohol in an attempt to appease peers’ demands and feel more socially included.
  • Low self-esteem alcohol may be seen as a harm-free alternative for teenagers to loosen up and be more carefree. These benefits, although temporary, may invite social acceptance by peers.
  • Binge drinking. a common practice among America’s teenagers, it becomes more prevalent as individuals get older.
  • Excessive drinkingi.e. 15 or more drinks for men per week and 8 or more drinks for women per week. Binge drinking can also be included under this category.
  • Family or cultural setting — when alcohol consumption is perceived as acceptable, teenagers have a higher likelihood of drinking. 
  • Easy accessibility to alcohol Many young individuals have reported that alcohol is not difficult or expensive to obtain.

In a major study that covers four decades, most 12th graders have not believed binge drinking on weekends puts them at risk.


  • Underlying mental health conditions — certain illnesses such as depression, social anxiety disorder, or panic disorder may feed teenagers’ desire to drink and find temporary emotional relief.
  • High levels of stress — alcohol is a depressant, and those who drink the substance may do so for its sedative effects.
  • Family history of substance abuse or alcoholism — children of those with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) face a four-to-tenfold increase in probability in developing an AUD than those children with no close relatives with an alcohol addiction. 
  • Genetics — certain genes or genetic mutations in DNA may raise teenagers’ likelihood of developing an AUD. 

What are the Effects of Underage Drinking?

Drinking alcohol could cause many health and behavioral effects in adolescents, both short- and long-term. Alcohol use may also lead to more serious, negative consequences like legal issues or death.

Some possible short-term side effects of underage drinking include:

  • Impaired judgment — this may include 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 — since coordination and motor skills decrease during alcohol consumption, teenagers run the risk of becoming injured, e.g. falls, burns, vehicle accidents, or drowning.
  • Violence — this may include manslaughter, homicide, suicide, sexual assault, or domestic abuse, etc.
  • Alcohol poisoning — Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) may continue rising approximately 30 to 40 minutes after teenagers stop drinking. Initial symptoms such as confusion, pale skin, or very slow breathing can progress to more serious conditions. In the most severe cases, individuals with alcohol poisoning may suffer brain damage, asphyxiation, hypothermia, coma, or even death. 

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

Some possible long-term side effects of underage drinking include:

  • Developing an AUD many studies have shown that underage drinking may increase an individual’s likelihood of developing an AUD due to physiological changes during growth development.
  • Liver damage — the liver is responsible for filtering toxins. However, repeated drinking from an early age can place a great deal of stress on the body organ and lead to permanent damage.
  • Abuse of other illicit substances — consuming alcohol repeatedly may increase the likelihood of abusing other illegal drugs.
  • Encounters with law enforcement — individuals who consumed alcohol irresponsibly could face arrests for disorderly conduct, drunk driving, assault, and vandalism. These crimes may stay on a person’s criminal record.
  • Premature death and disability — alcohol misuse is the leading cause of these two conditions among individuals aged between 15 and 49.

According to the Center for Disease Control, early initiation of drinking is associated with the development of an alcohol use disorder later in life. If you believe that you or a loved one is at risk, please contact your nearest healthcare professional to seek medical guidance and treatment.


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“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 Feb. 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

“Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243.

“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, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm.

Hingson, Ralph W. “Age at Drinking Onset and Alcohol Dependence.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, American Medical Association, 1 July 2006, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/205204.

Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. (2020). 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. Available at http://monitoringthefuture.org/pubs.html#monographs

“Substance Use Disorders.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/substance-abuse.

“Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 2006, pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm.

“Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm.

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