Is Alcohol Misuse Genetic? The Research Behind Families & Alcoholism


Long before the human genome was fully mapped in 2003, people understood that many traits are passed down from parents to children. Physical characteristics like hair and eye color or the shape of a nose are easy to identify, but health conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol can also have a genetic component.

If one or both of your parents have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, you may be wondering things like, “If my parents are alcoholics, will I be one?” or “Is alcoholism hereditary?” In truth, there are no easy answers, but there is a lot of information available to help you avoid underage drinking and to support you in developing a healthy relationship towards alcohol.

Language matters

Until recently, the term alcoholic was used to describe a person who misused alcohol, and alcoholism was used to describe the chronic hazardous use of alcohol. Both of these terms have negative associations that can make someone feel ashamed or like a failure when the words are applied to them.

The stigma around these words might even keep people from seeking treatment. Fortunately, we now understand that alcoholism is a treatable medical condition. It’s a substance use disorder (SUD) that is referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) instead of alcoholism. Rather than calling people alcoholics, it’s more helpful to say that they misuse alcohol or have alcohol use disorder.

Are there genetic markers for alcohol use disorder?

If you have a parent or close family member who misuses alcohol, you may be asking yourself, “Is alcohol misuse genetic?” Scientific evidence suggests that alcohol use disorder is a genetic disease, but there isn’t one particular gene that causes it. Instead, variations in multiple genes can affect a person’s risk for developing AUD. For instance, genes that affect how the body metabolizes alcohol can increase or decrease your risk. Some people have gene variants that cause them to feel uncomfortable or sick when they drink alcohol, so they are less likely to develop AUD. Others have variants that predispose them to excessive drinking.

If my parent has alcohol use disorder, will I develop it?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD.” That means you won’t automatically have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol just because your parent does, but you do have an increased chance of developing one.

It’s important to note, however, that only part of your relationship with alcohol is genetic. Environmental factors, like family dynamics, peer pressure, and your own life experiences, play a large role in shaping your behavior towards alcohol.

Are there behaviors about alcohol I may have learned from my parents?

Definitely. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most of us tend to pick up habits and beliefs from our parents. For example, if your parents drink excessively at parties and family gatherings, you may have received the impression that it’s necessary to drink alcohol to have a good time. Or if your parents use alcohol to deal with stress, you may be more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism when stressful situations arise in your own life.

How do I avoid developing alcohol use disorder?

Research suggests that if your parents have AUD, you are four times more likely to develop AUD if you begin drinking alcohol while underage. It’s important for you to understand your risks and learn how to avoid underage drinking. Here are some things you can do to create healthy habits regarding alcohol:

  • Educate Yourself. Learn about the potential risks of excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking.
  • Ignore Peer Pressure. Friends and classmates may tell you that underage drinking is no big deal, but they’re wrong. Not only is it illegal, but it’s also dangerous — especially if you may be predisposed to developing AUD.
  • Learn Coping Techniques. While your parents may use alcohol to relieve stress, you can manage your emotions in healthier ways, such as exercising, meditating, playing music, creating art, or spending time with friends.
  • Ask for Help. If you’re worried about a family member’s AUD or are concerned you may have a problem with alcohol, talk with a trusted adult, healthcare provider, or therapist. They can provide you with resources and help address potential issues.

Where can I learn more?

While it’s true that some of your reaction to alcohol could be genetic, it’s also true that you can take control of the situation by staying away from alcohol altogether. Talk it Out NC offers tons of useful information about how to avoid underage drinking.

Check out our website, where you’ll find resources including tips for talking with your parents about alcohol, suggestions for ignoring peer pressure, ideas for fun and sober activities, and much more. Visit and learn the facts about underage drinking today!