Substance Use

Is Addiction a Disease or Not?

stethoscope and brain with pills, addiction

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Addiction is a chronic condition in which people seek out substances or behaviors repeatedly, despite knowing their harm. Some argue that addiction is not a disease, but rather a lack of willpower. From a medical and scientific standpoint, however, addiction is considered a disease. Classifying it as a disease has been crucial in changing public perception about addiction, leading to more effective treatments. 

Is addiction a chronic disease or simply a lack of willpower? It depends on who you ask. Health professionals, psychologists, and society at large may have different perspectives on what causes addiction

From a medical standpoint, addiction is considered a disease. But to some in society, depending on their beliefs and upbringing, addiction might be regarded as a moral issue or a result of poor choices. 

Let’s look more closely at the science behind it. 

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Defining Addiction

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsively seeking or continually using or doing something despite harmful consequences. This cycle causes long-lasting changes in the brain.

Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or any number of substances or activities, the addiction lies in repeated use despite awareness of the harm it’s causing. 

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) says addiction is a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”

This definition suggests that,  much like other diseases, addiction has manifestations that are:

  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Social
  • Spiritual 

What Is a Disease and How Does It Relate to Addiction?

A disease is generally defined as a health impairment or abnormal functioning, and it usually has consistent and identifiable symptoms in a certain spot on the body (not an injury). 

So how does this relate to addiction? Well, addiction shares many characteristics with chronic diseases. It disrupts normal, healthy functioning and has serious, potentially fatal, consequences.

Like many diseases, addiction can be treated and managed, but not cured. This perspective is what leads many to believe that addiction is, indeed, a disease.

The Disease Model of Addiction

The disease model of addiction—based on a medical standpoint—classifies substance-use disorders as a chronic disease that needs ongoing management, much like diabetes or heart disease. According to this model, addiction is a brain disease that is often progressive and fatal if not treated.

Prolonged substance abuse can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, similar to the alterations observed in other diseases like Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

The disease model also emphasizes that addiction is not due to a moral failing, lack of willpower, or an unwillingness to stop. Instead, it is a complex disorder that requires comprehensive treatment.

This model has been instrumental in changing public perception about addiction and has led to more compassionate and effective treatments. It has also spurred significant advances in the science of addiction, leading to medications and behavioral therapies that can help people manage their addiction and lead healthy, productive lives.

The Arguments Against Addiction as a Disease

Many people argue against the notion that addiction is a disease. The rationale behind this perspective often lies in the belief that addiction is a choice or a consequence of poor decisions.

Those who believe this think that labeling addiction as a disease undermines personal responsibility and accountability for one’s actions. The disease model, however, doesn’t relieve people of their responsibilities to seek treatment. 

The argument against addiction being a disease also revolves around the concept of willpower. They argue that with enough determination and discipline, overcoming addiction is possible. 

But this perspective fails to consider the biological and psychological factors that contribute to addiction. It oversimplifies the complex nature of addiction, framing it like a choice or lack of willpower.

Science Says: Addiction Is a Disease with Complex Risk Factors

Scientific research supports the view that addiction is a disease. Studies have shown that addiction involves changes in the brain’s structure and function, similar to other recognized diseases.

Addiction can also be influenced by things like:

Genetic factors play a significant role in the risk of developing addiction. Studies suggest that genetic factors account for about half of the risk for addiction. Certain genes may make people more susceptible to addiction, or influence how they respond to substances.

Environmental factors also contribute to the risk of addiction, including exposure to drugs or alcohol at an early age, high levels of stress, lack of parental supervision, or association with peers who use substances.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

Addiction’s impact on the brain is profound and multifaceted. When substances or addictive behaviors are introduced, they can significantly alter these processes.

Substances like drugs or alcohol can hijack the brain’s reward system, causing a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and reward. This flood of dopamine reinforces the behavior, leading to repeated substance use. Over time, the brain adapts to the excess dopamine, leading to tolerance and the need for increased amounts of the substance to achieve the same effect.

Addiction also affects the brain’s decision-making and impulse control areas. Prolonged substance use can impair these regions, making it difficult for individuals to resist the urge to use, even when they are aware of the negative consequences.

This affects their ability to make sound decisions and exercise self-control, perpetuating the cycle of addiction.

Can Addiction Be Cured?

This is a complex issue, as the answer can depend on your understanding of what it means to be “cured.”

If by “cure,” you mean the complete eradication of the addiction, then the answer is generally no. Addiction is a chronic, often lifelong condition that needs management, much like how people manage other chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

On the other hand, if by “cure,” you mean achieving a state where the addiction no longer controls a person’s life, then the answer can be yes. With the right treatment and support, people can overcome their addiction and regain control over their lives. They might still experience cravings or even relapses, but they learn to manage these challenges effectively.

So while addiction may not be “cured” in the traditional sense of the word, it can be effectively managed. Many consider themselves recovered from addiction rather than cured. People with addiction can lead healthy, productive lives, but they may need ongoing support and treatment to maintain their recovery.

Treating Addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, plenty of resources are available to help, including therapy, medications, and peer support groups. Contact Zinnia Health 24/7 at (855) 430-9439.


Whether you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, understanding it as a disease can be the first step toward recovery. It’s a step that involves acknowledging the complexity of addiction, seeking professional help, and showing compassion toward those affected.

After all, addiction is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness, but rather, it’s a health issue that needs to be addressed with care, understanding, and respect.

While addiction may not be curable in the traditional sense, it can be effectively managed with the right treatment and support. A combination of evidence-based therapies, medications, and peer support can help individuals overcome their addiction and regain control over their lives.

Author: Calvin Anderson, PharmD, MBA. Calvin is a graduate of Cedarville University with both a pharmacist and business degree. He has a passion for specialty infusion and injectable pharmacy. He gladly serves patients with empathy and compassion to ensure they receive the best quality care.


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