Risk Factors for Addiction

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on September 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on September 12, 2014

Risk Factors for Addiction

It can be difficult to understand why some people are more prone to addiction than others. Addiction doesn’t seem to discriminate based on race, ethnicity, education, height, weight, or social status. Also, trying to pinpoint the cause of addiction is not easy. There are many risk factors that may increase the risk of addiction, regardless of a person’s upbringing or moral code. While the risk factors for a drug addiction may differ from, say, those for a sex or gambling problem, there tend to be many factors that combine to increase overall chances of addiction.

What makes one person and not another turn social use into an addiction could be a combination of these factors.


Over the past few decades, research has proven that addiction is not a matter of weak willpower or a lack of morals. It appears that the chemical reactions of an addicted brain are quite different from those of one that is not addicted. This explains why one person may be able to smoke cigarettes every so often for pleasure, while another needs them on a daily basis in order to function properly.

Heredity is a major risk factor for addiction. In fact, scientists estimate that 40 to 60 percent of a person’s risk for addiction is based on genetics. In families where there is addiction present, children are far more likely to have addiction problems as adults. This is especially true if they witness a parent’s addiction on a day-to-day basis.

Unfortunately, a person with an “addictive personality” may be at risk for a wide range of addictions. For example, a person with an alcoholic parent may choose not to drink, but could become addicted to smoking or gambling.


Environmental factors can also pose risks to a potential addict. For children and teens, a lack of parental involvement can lead to risk taking or experimentation with alcohol or drugs. Also, young people who experience abuse or neglect from parents may begin to use drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions.

In young adults, peer pressure is also a risk factor for addiction. Though it might not be overt or aggressive, the pressure from friends to fit in or be accepted can create a breeding ground for addiction to take root. The availability of a substance, as in the case of a college student having easy access to drugs or alcohol, may also make it much easier for a young adult to become addicted.

Environmental factors can be so strong that an addict in recovery usually needs to avoid certain situations or people that could trigger a relapse. The people you used to use drugs or drink with may need to be kept at a distance. Cravings may surface around certain people or in certain places. This is true even after a long period of sobriety.

Dual Diagnoses

In the medical community, a person with a “dual diagnosis” is someone who has an addiction and a mental health disorder like depression. Underlying mental health issues can increase the risk of addiction. Also, the addiction can then increase the symptoms or severity of the mental health problem. This begins a vicious cycle in which the addiction tends to progress quickly and with severe negative results. These addicts may feel like their drugs decrease their depression for a short time. However, in the long run, the addiction is actually making things worse.

In other cases, a medical condition can increase the risk of addiction. For example, a person who is taking prescription pain pills after a surgery might become addicted to those pills. Alternately, an injury or illness could drastically change a person’s lifestyle, which can encourage the use of drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Drug of Choice

While some addictions progress slowly over the course of several months or years, others move quickly. The object of the addiction can play a role in this. Drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines tend to be more physically addictive than alcohol or marijuana. As the withdrawal or “comedown” from cocaine or heroin use tends to be physically painful, the person is more likely to use the drug often and in higher doses. This speeds up the process of addiction and can cause even worse outcomes, including an overdose.


Just as some drugs may be more addictive than others, the method of use can also increase the risk of addiction. Drugs that are smoked or injected into the body tend to be more addictive than those that you swallow. This is because the drug goes straight into the bloodstream and brain without the liver and other organs filtering them out.

Early Use

Another risk factor for addiction is the age at which the use or behavior started. Research has shown that the younger the user is, the more likely he or she is to become addicted. Addictive behavior in younger years can also have an impact on brain development, making young people more prone to mental health disorders as the addiction progresses into their later years. 

Despite all of these risk factors, many people are able to combat or avoid addiction completely. Risk factors do not guarantee someone will be an addict, merely that their chances may be greater. When risk factors are present, abstinence may be the best solution. 

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