Can ADHD Cause Alcoholism?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Dual Diagnosis: Alcoholism and ADHD

People who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a higher risk of developing a dependency on alcohol. In addition, they may be more likely to drink earlier in life and consume more when they do. People struggling with ADHD sometimes resort to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate.

If a person also has another mental health issue, such as an anxiety or depression, alcohol use can worsen the condition. The complex interplay between these issues emphasizes how crucial it is to adopt integrated treatment strategies that address mental health and alcohol use issues concurrently.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, more properly referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a mental health disorder characterized by an inability to stop drinking despite its harmful effects on a person’s life. This disorder results in >major changes to the brain, particularly in its chemical processing, causing a person who has it to experience a variety of symptoms, both short- and long-term. 

The most common short-term effects experienced by people who drink excessively include:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor decision-making
  • Memory impairment
  • Nausea 

Long-term effects of AUD can include:

  • Liver damage
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Neurological impairment 
  • Onset of other mental health disorders

What Is ADHD?

ADHD affects children and adults alike. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 6 million American children aged 3 to 17 had ADHD between 2016 and 2019. Data from the National Library of Medicine indicates that 2.58% of adults around the globe have persistent ADHD, while 6.76% have symptomatic ADHD. 

ADHD is a neurological condition that presents symptoms of persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. People with ADHD may have trouble with tasks requiring organization, time management, and sustained attention. When treating ADHD, it is common to use a multipronged approach that includes behavioral therapy, lifestyle adjustments, and, in some circumstances, medication.

How Do Alcoholism and ADHD Affect One Another?

Understanding the complicated connection between ADHD and AUD has far-reaching implications for the lives of people who suffer from both conditions. Keep reading to explore the interplay between these disorders, including the difficulties and dynamics that develop from having both at the same time and why effective treatment usually requires a dual-diagnosis approach. 

Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment is a common risk factor for both people who have been diagnosed with AUD and those with ADHD. Both disorders have a negative impact on the brain’s executive functions, which include memory, focus, and inhibition. This leads to an increased risk of poor decision-making and challenges with everyday activities. Self-medicating with alcohol is common among people with ADHD. This can set in motion a chain reaction of cognitive decline. Those navigating the dual issues of problem drinking and ADHD benefit greatly from individualized therapies that take into account these disorders’ complex interaction.

Impulsivity and Risk-Taking

Similarities in impulsivity and an increased willingness to take risks are hallmarks of the relationship between drinking and ADHD. Because both disorders elevate the propensity for risky conduct, there is a higher possibility of prolonged alcohol misuse and other negative choices. If a person has developed an AUD, it is vital to teach them about the link between alcohol use and ADHD when it comes to taking risks. Dual diagnosis therapy can help them make healthier decisions when striving to maintain a sober lifestyle. 



People with ADHD are inclined to resort to alcohol to reduce their hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inability to concentrate. However, this attempt at self-treatment often makes alcohol-related problems worse and perpetuates the addictive cycle. Recognizing the self-medication dynamic is critical for treatment methods that address both ADHD and AUD.

Increased Sensitivity to Alcohol

Individuals with alcohol use disorder and ADHD have a heightened susceptibility to the effects of alcohol, which may explain the correlation between the two disorders. With this heightened sensitivity to alcohol comes the risk of faster impairment, making moderation more difficult. Individuals with ADHD have distinct reaction patterns to alcohol; therefore, it’s crucial to provide treatment based on those specific characteristics. Recognizing the link between these issues is critical for successful treatment to reduce or eliminate alcohol use and encourage healthy choices.

Difficulty Drinking Moderately

Both ADHD and AUD bring challenges with self-regulation, making it difficult to moderate alcohol intake. Rash decisions to drink without considering the long-term consequences hinder moderation and greatly increase a person’s risk of developing alcohol dependence. Understanding how both disorders work against moderation is essential to recovery. AUD and ADHD also affect many other areas of a person’s life, including nutrition, physical activity, sleep, work-life balance, and social and recreational activities. 

Poor Decision-Making

ADHD and AUD lead to poor decision-making because of interactions of cognitive and neurochemical processes associated with these mental health issues. People with ADHD generally exhibit erratic behavior that interferes with their capacity to think through potential outcomes. Excessive alcohol use exacerbates the problem by lessening the ability to exercise executive processes, including decision-making. Combining the hyperactivity and lack of inhibition that characterize ADHD with the inebriating effects of alcohol can lead to negative outcomes. During dual diagnosis therapy, a professional can address the combined effects of ADHD and AUD with their client. 

Increased Likelihood of Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Because of the difficulties it causes, ADHD increases a person’s risk of developing addictions. Self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs may ease symptoms like agitation and poor focus, but it increases the likelihood of addiction because of the reinforcing effects on the brain’s reward system. Preventing the progression of these interrelated issues in people with ADHD requires early diagnosis and tailored therapies that address both ADHD and the propensity for misusing alcohol.

Strained Relationships With Family and Friends

Both ADHD and AUD strain relationships within a person’s family, coworkers, and social circle. Impulsivity, one of the most common traits of ADHD, > causes problems in the home by triggering arguments and misunderstandings. Addiction to alcohol compounds these problems by contributing to an atmosphere of instability. The repercussions of heavy alcohol use, such as erratic conduct and communication issues, also damage friendships, social networks, and interactions at work or school. The combined impacts of ADHD and alcoholism underline the need for a supportive environment and focused therapies that address both mental health issues.

Increased Vulnerability to Accidents

Those struggling with AUD and ADHD are >vocational performance, leading to issues that extend into everyday life. ADHD may cause problems with time management, organization, and focus that can negatively impact both school and job performance. 

Alcohol’s reinforcing effects make existing cognitive deficiencies much worse, leaving it difficult to concentrate and make sound judgments. The cumulative effect may cause students to miss class, work less efficiently, and do poorly academically, endangering their future both in and out of the classroom. Individuals managing the intricacies of co-occurring mental health disorders can benefit extensively from dual-diagnosis treatment, which will teach them techniques to be more effective at school or work. 

Difficulty in Seeking and Maintaining Treatment

Problems with alcohol and ADHD go hand in hand, making it harder to start and stick with treatment. ADHD symptoms, such as procrastination and difficulties starting new projects, can deter people from seeking treatment. Both mental health disorders involve impulsivity that makes it difficult to keep appointments with therapists or attend support groups regularly. Alcohol’s reinforcing effects may also reduce compliance with therapy. Overcoming these obstacles requires supportive environments that promote sustained participation in treatment as well as specific therapies that address the particular challenges faced by a person with both ADHD and AUD.

The Benefits of Dual Diagnosis Treatment

If you or someone you care about has developed an alcohol use disorder, the first step in treatment is detoxification to rid the body of alcohol. Experts recommend that you go through the detox process under medical supervision at a treatment center because alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. In many cases, people can experience seizures, high blood pressure, and other health issues. 

The goal of the professionals during your detox is to keep you safe and make you as comfortable as possible. You may be administered medications during detox to ease your withdrawal symptoms. After you complete detox, a healthcare professional will work with you to develop a plan for your next steps. 

Individuals struggling with AUD and ADHD or other co-occurring disorders greatly benefit from dual-diagnosis therapy because it targets the dynamic between the two mental health conditions. Many treatment centers offer this type of therapy in their inpatient and outpatient programs. This form of treatment takes a holistic approach by addressing both alcohol abuse and co-occurring mental health issues simultaneously. Recognizing the interwoven nature of AUD and ADHD, this approach allows for individualized treatment plans that take into account the unique needs of each client. 

Get the Treatment You Need

At Alcohol Awareness, we understand how hard it is to find the support you or a loved one needs when dealing with AUD because we are recovering alcoholics ourselves. There are treatment centers all across the country that offer services to those struggling with alcohol issues and ADHD. Call us at (855) 955-0771 so that we can help you find the resources you need in your area. Our hotline is free and available 24/7.