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Why is Addiction Considered a Disease?

Why is addiction considered a disease? Most people are familiar with the concept of addiction. More than 30 million Americans have an addiction to drugs at some point in their lives. Over 75 percent report never receiving professional help for their Substance Use Disorder (SUD). 

Chances are if a person does not have an addiction themselves, they at least know someone who has. Despite the few degrees of separation between most folks and the person with the addiction, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about substance abuse. Most of the misunderstanding comes from public perception of addictions. Even more vexing is the fact that many people who have a SUD themselves know very little about the clinical view of addiction.

What Does Disease Mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines disease as “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.”

Addiction has been a challenge for human beings for as long as we have known how to ingest mind- and mood-altering substances. However, clinical circles didn’t consider addiction a disease until Dr. William Silkworth first said it after some success in treating chronic alcoholics in the mid-1930s. It wouldn’t be until 1956 when the American Medical Association formally recognized alcohol dependence as a disease.

Why Does it Matter?

There are several reasons why understanding addiction as a disease is helpful.

One of the most important is that it guides research into more effective treatment. When addiction was thought of as a lack of self-control or willpower and nothing more, treatment was ineffective at best and harmful at worse. Addicts and alcoholics got punishments or were told to get sober via the “cold turkey” method. This approach was ineffective and dangerous. It undoubtedly cost lives.

It is essential that people with addictions understand the condition is not their fault. They should not feel shame or humiliation due to their use of drugs or alcohol. However, they must accept that managing their condition is their responsibility. Recovery is a process they need to commit to if they expect any measure of success.

How Do We Treat Addiction as Disease?

Treating addiction as a disease does not mean the person with an alcohol or substance abuse disorder shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions. This is a common misconception. What it does mean is recognizing that professional and outside help provides the best chances for success in recovery.

It is not the fault of the addict or alcoholic that they have the condition they do. However, it is their responsibility to avail themselves of any help they can get. The person who has the addiction must recognize they need help and be willing to accept it.

The first step is usually medical stabilization. What the person is using, how much and for how long will determine the level of care they need. Professionals in the recovery community generally recommend medical detox to help people come off drugs and alcohol safely and comfortably. Without it, an opioid addict can get physically ill and endure mental distress which is unnecessary and often leads to relapse. Without a medical detox, a person dependent on alcohol or benzodiazepines can even suffer a deadly seizure. None of this can be taken lightly.


Once someone with an addiction is medically stable, their chances for successful recovery improve greatly. If they participate in treatment, the chances go up even further. Treatments may take the form of Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient care which can range anywhere from 30-90 days. During that time, they may choose to live in a sober living environment or at a treatment center. These are the general recommendations.

This period of care is used to further evaluate the patient. During these treatments, patients can get a diagnosis of co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety or trauma. Addressing these issues is easier while attending a treatment program.

The patient will gain a better understanding of the nature of addiction. Knowledge of addiction alone is not enough of course. The addict or alcoholic must accept that recovery is a lifestyle choice. A good program will introduce them to all the tools they need to live a happy and sober life, but it is up to the individual to put them into practice.

Do you or someone you know need help with an addiction? Reach out to us today for the treatment you need. 

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