Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

The deadliest year in American history was 2020. Although hundreds of thousands of those deaths were from COVID-19, many others were linked to substance abuse. In 2020, there were 81,000 reported drug overdoses, making it the highest ever recorded in a year. Approximately 31.9 million Americans age 12 and older currently use illegal drugs. Of those, 8.1 million of 25.4 percent have a drug disorder. Rampant drug use and addiction leave many wondering if drug addiction is a disease.

What is Drug Addiction?

Simply put, drug addiction is a strong desire to obtain and use certain substances, even though the individual knows that there could be unwanted and dangerous consequences attached to its use. It’s classified as a medical disorder impacting the brain and causing behavioral changes. Severe substance abuse disorder occurs when using drugs becomes an overpowering habit that harms someone’s day-to-day life. For example, someone with severe addiction may struggle at work or school, have conflicts in relationships, as well as legal or financial difficulties.

Professional Opinions about Drug Addiction as a Disease

How individuals, organizations, and medical professionals, and society define addiction various widely. Viewpoints about addiction are also ever-changing. However, most medical professionals agree that drug addiction is a disease. According to the following organizations, drug addiction is a disease because it is a long-term and relapsing condition linked to an individual compulsively pursuing and using drugs despite negative consequences:

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Additionally, the American Medical Association (AMA) categorized alcoholism as a disease in 1956 and then in 1987 classified addiction as a disease. In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defined addiction not as a behavioral problem or the result of making poor choices but as a chronic brain disorder.

How Drug Addiction Changes the Brain

Addiction changes how the brain reacts to circumstances involving self-control, stress, and rewards. Long after the individual stops using drugs, the changes in the brain often remain.

The human brain has a reward system. It releases the chemical dopamine when an individual does something pleasurable, such as eating a favorite dessert, spending time with a partner, or even working out. Since dopamine gives us good feelings, naturally, we want to keep doing what gives us those feelings. The brain desires to repeat whatever behavior released this feel-good chemical. The brain’s reward system is activated, which triggers cravings and establishes a habit loop.

Drugs put dopamine release on overdrive, feeding the brain more than other things that make someone feel good. As such, the brain responds by cutting back on dopamine production to return it to its normal levels. If the drug use continues, the brain makes less and less dopamine. The drug user will need more drugs more often to reach the level of pleasure from dopamine that it previously did.

Drug Addiction Similar to Other Diseases

Comparing drug addiction with heart disease can help support the stance that drug addiction is a disease:

  • Both conditions change the regular functioning of an organ in the body – the heart in someone with heart disease and the brain in someone with addiction
  • Decreased quality of life and a higher chance of premature death can result from both
  • Both conditions are largely preventable by healthy lifestyles and the avoidance of poor choices
  • Treatment for heart disease or drug addiction can prevent further damage and increase quality of life

Another hallmark of drug addiction and other diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure is that they can be lifelong conditions requiring ongoing management to maintain health. When someone is non-compliant with treatment for any of these diseases, symptoms and other problems will likely return. On the other hand, symptoms will likely decrease or disappear when the patient is compliant, and the disease is well-managed.

Treatment is a Choice

Just like someone diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes didn’t choose their disease, drug addiction isn’t something people choose. However, those with heart disease and those with drug addiction can make a choice to seek treatment. Drug addiction is a treatable disease, and it is never too early or too late to seek help recovering from it.


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