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Risk Factors in the Development of Addiction

Addiction is a serious problem that affects millions of people. Anyone can develop an addiction, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs however there are some risk factors that can predispose someone to becoming addicted to alcohol or other drugs. A person’s genetics, environment, age and medical history can all play a role in a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction. Certain types of medications and drugs are also more addictive than others, so it is important to consider addiction as a potential consequence of taking a medication or drug, even if prescribed.

The development of an addiction usually involves several steps, as a person doesn’t become addicted overnight. Usually the progression is characterized by an initiation of substance use, then there is a transition from experimental use to regular use, and then the development of an addiction, characterized by a persistent, compulsive, and uncontrolled use of a drug or alcohol despite knowing its harmful consequences. Environmental factors like peer pressure, parental boundaries, exposure to substances at home, and the accessibility of a substance play a key role in the initial decision to drink, smoke, or take illicit drugs. But not everyone who gets drunk, takes an opioid or uses ilicit drugs becomes addicted. The following are several risk factors in the development of an addiction.


It is a common misconception that addiction is a matter of a weak willpower or lack of morals however there is scientific evidence that genetics are a major risk factor for addiction. After the initial experimentation phase with drugs and alcohol, the transition from regular substance use to substance dependence or addiction can vary from person to person and is largely under genetic control. Evidence from family, twin and adoption studies have shown that there is 40-60% heritability of alcohol use disorders and 30-80% heritability of illicit substance use disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than half of your risk of addiction to alcohol, nicotine or other substances is based on genetics. Thus, if you have a family member who has experienced addiction, the likelihood of you developing an addiction is higher than someone without relevant family history. It doesn’t mean that you will necessarily develop the same addiction, but there is a genetic predisposition. For example, if one of your parents was an alcoholic, you might choose not to drink, but then become addicted to opioids after being prescribed them post-operatively or become addicted to gambling.


The interaction of genetic and environmental factors also plays a key role in the risk for addiction. As aforementioned, if you had an alcoholic or addicted parent, the likelihood of you developing an addiction increased. If this parent was in active addiction while you were growing up, your environment also contributed to your risk of becoming addicted. In particular, if you experienced abuse or neglect as a child, if you experienced impoverished economic and social conditions or if you were constantly surrounded by drugs and alcohol as a child, you are more likely to develop an addiction later in life. As the child gets older, peer pressure can also play a role, especially with adolescents because the pressure from friends to “fit in” may lead to consuming large amounts of alcohol or experimenting with drugs.

Other Mental Health Conditions or Dual Diagnoses

The risk for addiction also increases when a person has other underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In these cases, the underlying mental health disorders predispose a person for addiction and addiction can also exacerbate the symptoms of the other mental health conditions. This coexistence of a mental health disorder and addiction is called a “dual diagnosis” and a person often needs to be treated professionally for both conditions in order to recover. 

Age and Access

The age in which a person first experiments with drugs and alcohol can also predispose them to develop an alcohol use disorder or drug addiction. This is particularly problematic for children who grow up in homes where one or both parents are alcoholics or addicted to drugs because the likelihood of them trying a drink or drug is higher at an early age. Further, if it is easily accessible for the child or adolescent, the risk of addiction increases. Addictive behavior at an earlier age can also lead to brain changes during key development, making a person more susceptible to other mental health conditions. 

For prescription medications, many teenagers may be prescribed medications such as stimulants for ADHD or opioids for pain management post-surgery. Early exposure to these medications can be problematic and they should be monitored closely for medication adherence. Many older adults are also susceptible to problems with addiction to prescription medications, thus it is important to talk through your other risk factors for addiction with a physician when they are considering prescribing a potentially addictive medication.

Drug of Choice and Method of Use

While some addictions progress slowly, when a person is exposed to illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines, these drugs tend to be more physically addictive than alcohol or prescription medications that are used properly. The withdrawal from illicit drugs like heroin can also be painful, so the likelihood of a person using the drug again — often in higher doses — to prevent withdrawal contributes to the probability of developing an addiction faster. Increased use frequency and higher doses also lead to the potential of overdose.  Additionally, many of these drugs can be taken in a variety of ways and research has shown that drugs that are smoked, snorted or injected tend to be more addictive than drugs that are ingested orally. This is usually because the effects are immediate when the drugs enter a person’s bloodstream, creating a more instantaneous “high.”

Getting Help

If you are worried that you have many of the risk factors for addiction, talk to your doctor to learn more about addiction, find out about your risk for developing a substance abuse disorder, and different ways that you could use to proactively decrease your chances of becoming addicted. They may suggest abstinence or avoid using drugs and certain medications. 

If you or someone you know has a problem with addiction, it may be helpful to seek professional help. At Detox Nashville, addiction treatment specialists are able to work with you or your loved one to assess your situation and determine an individualized treatment plan that will suit your needs. A professional will be able to take a thorough substance use history and determine which treatment is recommended and the best therapeutic course of action is warranted. 

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