Government and Regulations

Quick Screen for Adolescents at Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Asking the right questions proves an efficient method of screening adolescents for alcohol abuse.


Simply asking, “how often have you had a drink in the past year,”could be enough to identify a young person at risk for alcohol problems, according to a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

University of Pennsylvania researchers conducted the study, collaborating with practitioners at 6 rural primary care clinics in Pennsylvania. Using a computer-based questionnaire, they screened nearly 1,200 participants aged 12 through 20 years for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

The researchers found 10% of those aged > 14 years met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, diagnostic criteria for AUD in the past year. Adolescents aged between 12 and 17 years who reported drinking at least 1 standard drink on 3 or more days in the past year were at highest risk: 44% had AUD.

The 3-day guideline had 91% sensitivity and 93% specificity. A negative screen (fewer than 3 drinking a days in the past year) effectively ruled out AUD, with 99% not having the disorder.

For young people aged 18 to 20 years, the best screen was to ask whether they had engaged in drinking on 12 or more days in the past year. Of those who reported that level of drinking, 31% had AUD.

The researchers also assessed screening methods outlined in NIAAA’s Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth: A Practitioner’s Guide and found the guidelines to be effective screens for AUD. They concluded that screening for frequency of alcohol use followed by a diagnostic evaluation for those who screen positive would be a “simple, brief, and cost-effective clinical assessment procedure.”

“Primary care physicians are encouraged to screen adolescents for alcohol problems, yet many do not, citing time constraints and other issues,” said NIAAA Director George Koob, PhD. “This study demonstrates that simple screening tools such as those in NIAAA’s Youth Guide are efficient and effective.”

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