Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

The Science Behind Substance Use Disorder

Drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a chronic, progressive disease of the brain that affects a person's ability to stop using alcohol and/or drugs, despite experiencing negative impacts, for example, problems in relationships, work, health, and more.

Common signs of drug addiction include:

  • Struggling to control substance use (amount, length of time using, and frequency)
  • A desire to quit without being able to follow through
  • Cravings
  • Withdrawal

There are many misconceptions surrounding drug addiction and those who struggle with it. It is important to remember that addiction is not a moral failing or due to a lack of willpower or discipline. Addiction is a disease and is not a fault of the person experiencing it. There is help available for those who need it.

Read on to learn more about drug addiction, including how it changes the brain, causes, and how to get help for you or a loved one.

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The Disease Model of Addiction

The disease model of addiction uses biological, neurological, and genetic reasoning to explain the development of addictive behaviors. This approach further supports that addiction is a disease of the brain.

That said, the disease model of addiction does have its limitations because of its exclusion of environmental, psychological, and social factors. Drug addiction is a multifaceted illness and multiple angles must be considered when discussing and addressing the condition.

How Does Addiction Change the Brain?

To understand how addiction changes the brain, it is important to know how drugs impact the brain.

Drugs primarily affect what's known as the reward center of the brain. The reward center is made up of various structures and pathways that are activated when you experience something enjoyable or rewarding. The brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure.

Over time, drug addiction can physically alter the brain. In fact, brain imaging studies of people who have substance use disorder show these physical changes in the brain, including structures vital to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavioral control.

Is Addiction Chronic?

Addiction is defined as a chronic, progressive disease. This means that it is often lifelong and not curable, and a relapse is possible, although many people can go on to manage addiction with proper treatment and support.

Is Addiction a Choice?

The first time trying a substance is a choice, a conscious decision you make. But becoming addicted to the substance is not a choice, it is what happens over time. Drug addiction is not a moral failing or the result of low willpower. Addiction is a disease, and a serious one. Nearly 841,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose.

What Causes Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is caused by a variety of factors, including someone's genetic makeup, the environment they find themselves in, and developmental experiences. Psychological factors, such as having a mental health illness, also contribute.


Genetics plays the largest role in the chance of someone developing a substance use disorder. Genetics accounts for 40%–70% of the risk if a parent or close relative has an addiction.


In addition to one's genetic makeup, the environment they inhabit can further contribute to the chance they develop a drug addiction. For example, children who grow up around parents or others who struggle with drug addiction are more likely to develop a drug addiction than others without this influence.

Getting Help

Whether you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there are effective treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous. Therapy and self-care strategies can also help.


Different therapies that may help with addiction include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Through this form of talk therapy (psychotherapy) a mental health professional will help identify patterns and track thoughts or feelings that may have led to the addiction, and provide step-by-step guidance and healthy coping skills.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): As a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT aims to help people control their emotions, develop coping skills, and improve relationships through individual and group therapy, as well as phone coaching.
  • Other forms of talk therapy: Psychotherapy uses different types of communication to assess, diagnose, and treat behavior patterns and emotional concerns.

Self-Care Strategies

Taking care of your own emotional, physical, and mental health is important. Try to incorporate the following each day:

  • Regular exercise
  • Meditation
  • Healthy diet
  • Enough sleep

You're Not Alone

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

If you are in crisis or feeling suicidal, you can find support through calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or texting "HOME" to 741741 to chat with someone from the Crisis Text Line.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency and need immediate care, call 911.


Drug addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease. It is caused by a multitude of factors including one's genetics, development, psychology, and environment. There are many effective treatments available including therapy and group programs.

A Word From Verywell

Struggling with drug addiction is not easy. It is not a choice, a moral failing, or the result of a lack of willpower. There is help available. Talk to a loved one or your healthcare provider if you think you may be struggling with drug addiction.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes drug addiction?

    Drug addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Its cause is multifaceted, the result of a combination of environmental, developmental, psychological, and genetic factors.

  • Are certain people more likely to develop a drug addiction?

    Yes, certain people have a greater likelihood of developing a drug addiction. For example, those with certain genetics, a family history, or environmental influences.

  • How can you tell if someone has a drug addiction?

    There are a number of signs that may indicate someone is struggling with a drug addiction. These include struggling to control substance use, a desire to quit without being able to follow through, cravings, and withdrawal.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Recovery Research Institute. Substance use disorder signs and symptoms.

  2. Blume AW, Rudisill DM, Hendricks S, Santoya N. Disease model. In: Principles of Addiction. Elsevier; 2013:71-76. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-398336-7.00007-3.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Drug addiction.

  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drug misuse and addiction. Updated July 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose deaths.

  6. MCLELLAN AT. Substance misuse and substance use disorders: why do they matter in healthcare? Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2017;128:112-130.

By Molly Burford
Molly Burford is a mental health advocate and wellness book author with almost 10 years of experience in digital media.