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Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

As stated by the NIDA, “Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use.” This substance use disorder has now been scientifically and medically classified as a disease because of the way it affects those individuals who become addicted to a drug. But what does it mean when we say that drug addiction is a disease? Can it be cured? And why is it that some people become addicted and others do not?

Why Is Addiction a Disease?

Addiction starts with a choice. While some children are born already dependent on a drug, they are not addicted because the latter implies consistent abuse even when the individual realizes that the drug is doing them harm. A person has to choose to use drugs in the first place and their chronic drug abuse will often become an addiction over time.

Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist impulses to take drugs.” Addiction is a disease because, over time, the drug changes the way the brain works and even makes changes to its actual structure. Once this happens, it is often extremely difficult (and in some cases, impossible) for an individual to quit abusing drugs without help.

drug addiction

Drug addiction starts as a choice, but turns into a disease.

According to SAMHSA, addiction is a chronic disease for many reasons, including:

  • It develops as a result of “complex causes” which are not the same in every individual.
  • It is likely to develop in those with other psychiatric disorders or cause other psychiatric disorders to form (called comorbidity).
  • It progresses differently with each individual.
  • It has “comparable relapse rates” to other relapsing diseases like
    • Asthma
    • Type II Diabetes
    • Hypertension

For these reasons, a substance use disorder or addiction is classified as a chronic disease, or a “long-lasting condition that can be controlled but not cured” (CMCD). After embracing this concept, many strides have been made to better understand the disease itself as well as to better treat it.

Who Becomes Addicted?

If abusing drugs over time causes major changes in the brain which then cause addictive behavior, why is it that some people become addicted while others do not? It is important to understand not only how this disease occurs but also why. In many cases, different aspects of an individual’s personality, upbringing, and other important parts of their identity help to decide whether or not they are predisposed to becoming addicted.

  • Biology
    • “The genes that people are born with––in combination with environmental influences––account for about half of their addiction vulnerability” (NIDA).
    • Individuals whose parents abused drugs are more likely to become addicted than those who did not see drug abuse while they were growing up. This occurs for both “environmental and genetic reasons” (NLM).
    • Also a person’s gender and ethnicity can predispose them to a greater risk of experiencing these same issues in the future.
    • As mentioned earlier, someone who already suffers from a mental disorder is more likely to abuse drugs as a coping mechanism and become dependent on them.
  • Development
    • When a person takes drugs at an early age or sees drugs being abused often when they are young, they have a higher chance of becoming addicted than those who do not. This is because of where they are in their developmental stage and how influential substances and certain behaviors can be.
    • A history of physical or sexual abuse can lead an individual toward substance abuse, although this connection can be made at any time in an individual’s life, not just during their development.
    • A low self-esteem can also be a factor.
  • Environment
    • A person who grows up in an environment where drugs are extremely available has a higher likelihood of abusing and becoming addicted to them.
    • Family, friends, and other individuals can also influence a person to abuse drugs.
    • Those who live more stressful lives are more likely to cope by abusing drugs and will often continue to do so to the point of addiction.
    • Isolation and feelings of loneliness also attribute to the likely occurrence of these issues.

While “no single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs,” the more risk factors an individual has, “the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.” Certain diseases, like sickle cell anemia and type I diabetes, have factors that can cause them to be genetic. Others, like sexually transmitted diseases, are more likely to occur based on a person’s environment as well as other aspects of their life. A disease like addiction is not caused by any one factor in every individual, but it can occur with the more factors an individual exhibits.

Is Addiction Curable?

As stated earlier, chronic diseases are not curable. But they can be managed. Just like other chronic diseases, addiction can be treated and its dangerous consequences minimized with time and professional care.

According to the NIDA, “Drug treatment is intended to help addicted individuals stop compulsive drug seeking and use.” While this result is not a guarantee, attending regular treatment sessions can help

  • Lessen and eventually end withdrawal symptoms
  • Minimize cravings
  • Teach patients how to avoid their triggers and deal with their cravings when they do become triggered
  • Reduce an individual’s likelihood of committing crimes, overdosing, and abusing illicit drugs
  • Make a patient healthier both mentally and physically and more able to cope with their addictions in a safe, effective way

“Successful treatment for addiction typically requires continual evaluation and modification as appropriate, similar to the approach taken for other chronic diseases.” In many cases, a regimen of therapy and medication is used to help patients change their behavior and stop abusing drugs. While the possibility of relapse is always present, drug addicted individuals can change their lives with successful treatment regimens and avoid further complications as a result of substance abuse. Even though this is not technically considered a cure, it helps patients gain back control of their lives. For a person living with a disease like addiction, its chronic nature does not have to mean it must be allowed to rule the individual’s everyday life.