Throughout history, drug and alcohol addiction were seen as signs of weakness or moral failing. However, as doctors and health professionals continue to understand addiction’s causes and effects, it is clear that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as a disease.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine describes how “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” Like other diseases, drug and alcohol addiction impairs the brain’s functions and affects the individual’s daily life. In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared that alcoholism and addiction were, in fact, diseases.

There are some criteria used to support the disease concept for alcoholism. These include:

  • Primary: The illness exists without needing an additional cause, though other illnesses may be present such a dual diagnosis. It is also not caused by injury or outside reasons.
  • Chronic: Does not go away and can recur.
  • Progressive: Left untreated, it will get worse over time.
  • Symptomatic: Has visible symptoms such as physiological, behavioral, and lifestyle
  • Fatal: Without treatment, it will result in death.

Addiction is a Complex Disease

To understand addiction as a disease, it is essential to breakdown its definition and its causes. From alcohol to illicit drugs and from prescription drugs to over-the-counter drugs, substance use disorder, anyone can become addicted.

What is addiction?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.” Even when faced with the life-threatening repercussions of drug or alcohol abuse, it is almost impossible for a person to stop using or drinking.

What causes addiction?

Addiction is not a choice; it is a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. Although some individuals may have a biological predisposition for alcohol and drug abuse, it is a disease that can affect anybody.

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There are many reasons a person may start using drugs or drinking alcohol, often beginning with a positive experience. The rewarding results are a reason many people use drugs or drink after the initial experience. As the brain adapts to the positive reward, the reward shifts to compulsive behavior. When drug and alcohol abuse become a compulsive behavior, addiction occurs.

The first use of drugs may be a choice; once the brain is affected by the addiction, a person is no longer in control of their behavior. This is when a substance use disorder may develop, and treatment is necessary.

Impact of Addiction on the Brain

While the individual effects of drugs and alcohol vary, all addictive substances affect the brain’s reward system. Drug and alcohol addiction can rewire the brain’s parts, which affect reward, motivation, and memory. Eventually, the brain’s wiring (neurotransmitters) can’t communicate properly. Other changes are lowered impulse control and judgment. With the brain impaired, a person cannot maintain control, which results in the continued abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Effects of Addiction

Addiction is caused by biological, environmental, and behavioral factors, and these same elements become affected by addiction. Serious health problems can develop, such as lung or heart disease, stroke, cancer, mental health conditions, or contracting infections, in addition to destroying nerve cells.

Addiction is a chronic disorder. Like diabetes and chronic hypertension, addiction will rarely go away, but it can be managed through treatment. The impact of addiction is widespread, affecting a person physically and mentally. In addition, drug and alcohol addiction affects those closest to an individual, from family and friends to co-workers and colleagues; substance use has immeasurable consequences.

Importance of Addressing Addiction as a Disease

Just like any other medical diagnosis, the first step in a solution is addressing the problem. Because addiction is a disease, recovery treatment must be regarded with the same care level as any health problem.

Willpower alone will not conquer drug and alcohol addiction. If someone broke an arm, no one would assume a wish will heal the arm. The same goes for any other medical condition or disease, including drug and alcohol addiction. Because it is a disease, with the right care and rehabilitation treatment, recovery from addiction is possible.

Are you or a loved one struggling with the disease of addiction? You are not alone. We are here for you, and we are here to help.