How Long Does it Take to Get Addicted to Alcohol?
It is often hard to measure exactly how long it takes for addiction to occur. Let’s start by looking at a few of the complicating factors. For one, how will we define addiction? Some studies define addiction as physical dependence, others as psychological dependence, and some as a combination of both. Another problem is that you cannot really do a controlled experiment in humans. Here is why: it would be unethical to assign one group of people to get addicted to alcohol. Therefore, many of the studies we have to answer this question are based on animal research or clinical observations. Below we take a look at the psychological research in order to try to answer the question, how long does it take to get addicted to alcohol?
Before we try to answer this question we have to look at the definitions of addiction mentioned above. The first way addiction is often defined is physical dependence. This is when people show physical symptoms of withdrawal when alcohol is taken away. According to the DSM-5 the psychical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Autonomic hyperactivity including sweating or fast pulse
- Increased hand tremor
- Nausea or vomiting
Psychological dependence is when someone experiences psychological symptoms when the substance is taken away. Much like physical dependence this centers around symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms are incredibly distressing to the individual and often indicate that someone might be addicted. According to the DSM-5 the psychological symptoms of alochol withdrawal include:
- Short term visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations
- Psychomotor agitation (can include restlessness or purposeless movement)
Now that we understand how researcher usually define addiction we can start to look at some studies. Researchers have tried to look at how long it takes to get addicted to alcohol by testing it in mice. In a study published in 2000, researchers found that mice showed physical symptoms of addiction in only six weeks.
In this study mice were allowed to self-administer alcohol whenever they wanted over a six week period. The mice who administered alcohol to themselves daily for six weeks showed both physical and psychological symptoms of dependence when they stopped having alochol. Specifically, these mice were more likely to have seizures and showed symptoms of anxiety.
Importantly, when mice were only allowed to drink alcohol for 2-4 weeks they did not show these same symptoms. These results might indicate that it takes about 6 weeks of regular drinking in order to the body and brain to start to depend on it.
How long does it take to get addicted to alcohol? The best (but not most satisfying answer) is that it really depends. Like mice humans probably can probably become physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol in a short period of time. Based on animal studies there is evidence to suggest that if you drink regularly for six weeks you will probably be physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. However, we humans have many more complicating factors than those mice in a lab experiment. Here are some of the things that might change the length of time it takes for someone to get addicted to alochol.
How Old Were You When You Started Drinking?
The younger you are when you start drinking, the more likely you are to get addicted to alochol. Subsequently, you will probably also become addicted to alochol more quickly. Teenagers have something known as dopamine deficiency. What happens is when we are teenagers the brain produces less dopamine than usual. Have you ever wondered why teens tend to be thrill seeking, sex crazed, drug doing maniacs? This is why! They are trying to get a dopamine rush that their brains aren’t giving them.
Alcohol plays a role in this because it hijacks the dopamine reward system. When you drink it releases dopamine and makes you feel good. So the result is that you want to drink more. For brains that are already deprived of dopamine this happens even worse. So that psychological dependence we talked about earlier might happen more quickly in teenagers.
Studies have shown that the younger people are when they start drinking, the more likely they are to develop alcohol addiction later in life. Particularly people who started drinking before age 16 tended to have much higher rates of alochol dependence than those who started drinking after age 20. However, there is no research that tells us exactly how long it takes for a 16 year old to become addicted vs. a 20 year old. We can deduce based on dopamine deficiency and higher rates of addiction that it happens more quickly for people who start drinking at a young age.
Do You Have a Family History of Addiction?
This seems like common knowledge now but it is worth repeating, a family history of addiction increases your risk of alcohol addiction. Numerous studies have reiterated this finding. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that adolescents with a family history of addiction put them at higher risk of becoming problem drinkers.
Another study really brings home just how much family history increases your risk of addiction. Researchers found that if you have a second or third degree relative (e.g. first cousins, great grandparents, aunts, or uncles) who has suffered from addiction you are 45% more likely to develop alcohol addiction. If you have a only a first degree relative (e.g. parents or siblings) with alcohol addiction you are 86% more likely to become addicted to alcohol. Finally if you have first, second, and third degree relatives with a history of addiction you are 167% more likely to develop alcohol addiction.
This research suggests that people with a family history of addiction might become addicted more easily and possibly more quickly than people who don’t. There is no research that tells us exactly how long it takes for people with a family history of abuse to get addicted vs. those who do not. However, we can reasonably assume that it is faster for those who have a family history of addiction.
Did You Have Adverse Childhood Experiences?
The ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study was done some years ago by Kaiser. It was a huge study that sampled over 17,000 people. The goal of the study was to try to figure out what might predict health outcomes. Without really meaning to they stumbled upon one of the most important findings in recent years. These things they called adverse childhood experiences were associated with a number of poor health and psychological outcomes.
Since then the data has been re-looked at by many researchers in order to see what else these types of experienced might predict. These adverse experiences include things like childhood abuse, trauma, poverty, and more. A study conducted in 2009 found that having two or more adverse childhood experiences was linked to a higher risk of alochol dependence. This indicated that maybe one thing that effects how likely you are to become addicted is bad childhood events.
Again, there is no research that tell us exactly how quickly these people become addicted to alcohol. However, we can assume that if you have a history of these bad events you might get addicted to alcohol more quickly than people who don’t.
The Compounding Effect
Let us go back and revisit our initial question. How long does it take to get addicted to alochol? We have presented a few different answers here. For mice in a lab it takes about 6 weeks. Let’s assume for a moment that this is the baseline for humans. Pretend that if we just average everyone out it takes about 6 weeks of daily drinking to become addicted to alochol. Now, lets say that some of these people are only about 15 years old. Based on everything discussed above, it probably won’t take them the full 6 weeks to become addicted. Or, what if one of these people is 15 year old, has an alcohol dependent parent, and a history of trauma? Again, we can guess based on what we know that it will take much less then 6 weeks of daily drinking for this person to become dependent.
Most studies show that having one risk factor for developing addiction isn’t great. They also often show that the more risk factors you have together the worse things get. The last example is what we would call a compounding effect. All of the risk factors compound one another making the outcomes worse and worse.