How Is Addiction a Disease?

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

We have heard it before: Addiction is a disease. But for many of us this does not make sense. Diseases are something you catch. Or they are part your genes. Diseases are cancer, asthma, kidney disease. A person becomes an addict because they like drugs. They made a decision to try drugs, and then they made a decision to do more and more drugs until they became addicted. At least this is how many people see it.

And to some of us, even though we want to be openhearted and willing to see the best in those we love, we have been stung. We have been lied to, stolen from, manipulated, and have even had our desire to help spurned. So when we hear that addiction is a disease, we feel like this might be something else we are being told in order to let the addict in our lives off the hook, yet again.

Addiction Is Not Like the Flu

If we are talking about the flu, sure we understand the disease element. We can forgive a person for needing to sneeze or having to run to the bathroom to throw up. This is the result of a person’s bodily reaction to a disease they likely picked up in their day-to-day life. How can something be a disease if you chose it in the first place? In fact, it is much more difficult to forgive someone for stealing money in order to find a fix.

The idea of addiction as disease actually started to soften the perception of addicts. The stigma. There is still a cultural stigma that comes with being addicted, but it was once worse. An addiction was equated with moral degradation and character deficiencies. This is still true today, though maybe only to a slighter degree.

Calling addiction a disease creates a less stigmatized approach to finding help for an addict. When a person has a sickness, instead of punishing or chastising them, people in their lives can focus on treating the “disease.” This puts the emphasis on help and care in place of more destructive negative forces (shame and blame) that are almost never helpful. Indeed, a main reason a person does not look for help to get free from a life-threatening addiction is the stigma involved in it.

Addiction Is Not Contagious

You don’t catch addiction, or there is no infectious agent. The flu, hepatitis, HIV, these are examples of diseases you catch. However, like many diseases, a person can be predisposed to being addicted because of their genetic makeup.

This does not change the fact that addiction is brought on by behavior. If a person does not try drugs, they will never become addicted. The behavioral aspect is why we blame the addict for the situation they are in. However, there are other diseases with less stigma attached to them that are brought on by behavior. Type 2 Diabetes is largely a lifestyle created disease. There are cases where this disease is genetic or part of a person’s physiology, but by and large, Type 2 Diabetes is a result of a behavior and is even preventable with different choices.

Other Behavioral Diseases

There are more examples. Heart disease? Again, though there are plenty of instances where genetics and family history play a part, heart disease for many people is a result of behavior. Many cancers are behaviorally induced (smoking causes lung cancer) and eating salt raises blood pressure. Though they are passed on through contagions, sexually transmitted diseases are also quite clearly a situation where the body is changed based on behavioral decisions.

And that is the reason why in addition to the stigma, people can call addiction a disease. It doesn’t matter how it happened. But for certain people, drugs and alcohol changes the way their brain is wired ( This is a physical (psychological, too) change. This is also why it is considered a chronic disease: something the addict will have to manage for the rest of their lives.

Managing a Chronic Disease

And that is the key. Addiction must be managed. In the same way a person with either type of diabetes must be aware of their blood sugar numbers, a person recovering from an addiction must manage cravings and physical attraction to substances. Addiction changes the way the brain works.

Of course, a person who is in full swing addiction, their body actually needs the substances to function. It is more than psychological, and even more than physical proclivity—their body has changed in such a way that it requires the substance in order to operate properly.

Call Us Today

This is why a professional, medical assisted detox is necessary for anyone who is addicted to a substance (including alcohol). At First Steps Recovery offers many quality treatment options that will give you the tools and support you need to help you overcome substance abuse for good. Our drug treatment programs have been extensively researched and individually tailored to help you address your unique needs. No matter how severe your addiction, our staff will be with you every step of your stay with us to ensure you get the care and encouragement you need to achieve long-term recovery. Call 1-844-489-0836.


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