Is Addiction a Disease?

Is Addiction a Disease?

Most people probably have a stereotype in their minds about what addiction is – maybe you do as well. Some might see addiction as a choice, while others see it as a weakness or character flaw. However, the truth is that drug and alcohol addiction isn’t any of these – you didn’t choose to be addicted and you don’t abuse drugs or alcohol because you are weak or a bad person. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Addiction is actually a complex disease that involves both the brain and the body. Alcohol and drug abuse can cause permanent changes to the entire body, affecting everything from your psychological state to your heart and lungs. Additionally, just like the fact that you do not choose to be addicted, in most cases you also cannot will yourself to stop.

When Was Addiction Classified as a Disease?

Alcohol and drug addiction weren’t always classified as a disease in the United States. While some medical professionals might have suspected it addiction to be a medical issue rather than a character flaw, it took the scientific and medical communities awhile to discover the fact that alcohol and drug abuse can cause changes in the brain that affect the course of addiction. Even after this fact was discovered, it wasn’t a revelation that was well-accepted by the medical field for quite some time.

In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) first classified alcoholism as a disease. However, it wasn’t until 1987 when drug addiction, and addiction in general, was recognized as a disease. This means that addiction science as currently accepted by the medical field is only just over 30 years old.

Is Addiction a Chronic Disease?

The CDC considers a chronic disease to be one that lasts at least one year and requires ongoing medical attention and/or limits your daily activities. Using this definition, alcohol and drug addiction would be considered a chronic disease. Most people experience substance abuse far longer than one year and the recovery process can last months, years, or throughout your entire life.

Substance abuse and addiction can also be progressive, meaning it can get worse over time, especially if not treated. For some, addiction is also a relapsing disease, requiring multiple courses of intensive treatment and frequent long-term monitoring before recovery is achieved.

While it might be frightening to hear that addiction is chronic and can be progressive, the good news is that it’s treatable. In fact, with proper treatment by highly qualified addictions specialists, addiction can be managed and recovery can be lifelong. Currently, there are over 25 million Americans who are living in stable remission from a substance abuse disorder.

What are the Signs of Addiction?

Because drug and alcohol addiction are now recognized as medical and mental health conditions, there are several set criteria that have been developed to aid in diagnosing the disease. The following criteria suggest a substance use disorder:

  • experiencing strong cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • spending significant amounts of time and money obtaining drugs or alcohol
  • trying to reduce your drug or alcohol use without success
  • using more alcohol or drugs than you intended to, or in the case of prescription medications, using the drug for longer or at a higher dosage than prescribed
  • reduced performance at work or school
  • using drugs or alcohol even when it is negatively affecting your mental or physical health
  • needing higher or more frequent doses, or stronger versions, of your drug or alcohol of choice to achieve the desired effects
  • continued drug or alcohol use even when it contributes to problems with family, friends, or co-workers
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when drugs or alcohol are not available

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How Does Addiction Affect the Body?

Unfortunately, substance abuse can have a significant effect on your body. Depending on the type of substance used, some of the more severe consequences of addiction can include:

  • liver disease or failure
  • cardiac disease, heart attacks, or collapsed veins and blood vessels
  • respiratory depression
  • poor nutrition & risk of malnutrition
  • seizures
  • agitation
  • premature aging of the skin
  • convulsions
  • gum and periodontal disease
  • increased risk for HIV/AIDS
  • increased risk of cancer
  • kidney disease or failure
  • insomnia or sleep disturbances
  • increased blood pressure
  • lung disease
  • weakened immune system
  • development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or neonatal addiction in pregnant women with substance abuse disorders
  • premature death

How Does Addiction Affect Mental Health?

Besides affecting your body, substance use disorders can also profoundly affect your mental health. Some aspects of your mental heath that might experience changes due to addiction include:

  • increased symptoms of anxiety
  • increased symptoms of depression
  • Increased dysphoria or disconnection with friends, family, life, or reality
  • increased sensitivity to stressors
  • mental confusion or decreased cognitive ability
  • increased chance of engaging in risky behaviors
  • poor memory & attention
  • changes in your brain’s ability to perceive rewards
  • changes in your brain’s ability to perceive danger
  • changes in your ability to make healthy decisions
  • changes in your ability to evaluate benefits and risks
  • difficulty controlling your emotions
  • increased paranoia
  • development of hallucinations or delusions
  • loss of self-control
  • increased impulsiveness
  • aggressive or explosive behavior
  • increased risk for schizophrenia or other severe mental health conditions

As you can see, drug or alcohol addiction can have a significant effect on your body and your mental health. In fact, every single bodily system is affected with substance use disorders. This is further evidence that addiction is a serious disease, sometimes having a catastrophic effect on the body.

Can Addiction Be Cured?

When people hear the word “cure”, they often think of being treated and then never face the disease again. When someone is cured from a disease, there is no trace of the disease left in their body and the disease will not occur in that person again.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have a cure for alcohol or drug addiction. However, with proper treatment, addiction can go into remission. Remission is slightly different from a cure. With remission, your signs and symptoms will be significantly reduced to the point where addiction does not affect your everyday life. When you are in remission, you no longer have an active addiction.

Because addiction cannot yet be fully cured, a person in recovery may relapse. Remember, addiction is a disease rather than a choice – for some people, relapses are a part of that disease course. If or when a relapse happens, it doesn’t mean your treatment is a failure and it doesn’t mean that you are weak. It simply means you need more support to help get back on the right track. With the right recovery support, you will overcome your setbacks and get back on the road to living clean and sober.

The right treatment program is important for helping you recover from drug or alcohol addiction. It might be difficult to take the first step and reach out for help. However, it is important to keep in mind that just like people don’t choose to have cancer or diabetes, you didn’t choose to have a substance abuse disorder. Nobody would look down on someone for seeking treatment for their cancer or diabetes and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of seeking treatment for your addiction. Starting treatment is an important part of your recovery process.

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