Why Addiction is a Chronic Illness

Guest writer, Patrick Bailey, penned this article for us, “Why Addiction is a Chronic Illness”. This topic is of interest to Patients Rising because if we accept that addiction is a chronic illness, then conversations need to be had about making addiction treatment available. Patrick covers some of those talking points here. Good reading!

Addiction is often thought of as a weakness or a consequence of life choices. The truth is, addiction is more complicated than that. Rather than being stigmatized, people need to realize that addiction is a chronic disease. Changing the way it is seen can help change the way it is treated. That in turn will ultimately make addiction treatment availabe to a greater number of people.

What is a Chronic Disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a chronic disease is a condition that lasts one year or more which requires ongoing medical attention or limits activities of daily living or both. Examples include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and yes, addiction. Chronic disease occurs in six out of 10 adults in the United States, with four out of 10 having two or more conditions. Addiction is a long-lasting condition that cannot be cured, but luckily, it can be controlled.

What is Addiction?

While addiction is clinically referred to as a substance use disorder, in reality, it is a complex disease of the brain and body. It disrupts the part of the brain that is responsible for learning, memory, judgment, reward, and motivation. This means a person begins to compulsively use substances despite serious consequences. In the last decade, the definition of addiction was extended to include the underlying neurology of the brain and not just outward behavior. Over 80 scientists worked to make this happen and it was a big move towards making addiction treatment available to those in need.

Addiction as a Chronic Disease

Like other chronic diseases, addiction has a combination of causes – behavioral, psychological, biological, and environmental. Genetic risk factors also play into the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction and is the main risk factor. Just as a person can help prevent heart disease by exercising and eating healthy, a person that uses alcohol or drugs can make the choice whether to do so or not. At least at first. Once the choices to eat unhealthy foods or to use drugs are made, the control and option of will power are taken away and the disease takes over. One of the defining symptoms of addiction is the loss of control over substance use.

Just like you can reverse or manage diabetes or overcome cancer, you can also recover from addiction. But because you can’t choose how your brain and body react to what is happening inside, you also can’t control it without help. For a chronic illness like diabetes, that might be medication and food restrictions. For addiction control, it will take the help of an alcohol or drug rehab facility. Unfortunately, as is the case with all chronic disease, a relapse is possible. This is part of what makes it chronic.

Up to half of the people with a substance use problem end up with a severe, chronic disorder. This means that their addiction has become a progressive, relapsing disease that requires continual care. From intensive treatments to ongoing monitoring to essential family and peer support, the disease demands attention.

Why Some People Don’t See Addiction As a Disease

There are two main reasons people have trouble seeing addiction as a disease.

The first is because the person is choosing to use drugs or alcohol. At first, it is a choice, again, just like eating healthy or not is a choice. But eventually, the brain is changed so much that the person cannot control their behavior. Choices don’t determine whether something is classified as a disease, and many diseases involve personal choices. It is not the choice, but the result of the choice — the change in the body or brain — that leads to the disease.

The second reason relates to whether a person needs treatment. While not every person who deals with substance abuse ends up in rehab, likewise not every person who is at risk for heart disease ends up with heart disease. Some people can make changes before it gets to that point. Either way, addiction is a treatable disease.

Treating Addiction as a Chronic Disease

Studies have shown that treating addiction as a chronic disease has benefits to the person dealing with substance abuse. It can help avoid co-occurring conditions and generally provides long-term success rates. Recently, addiction treatment has evolved from substance-specific to comprehensive treatment that focuses on all potentially addictive substances and behaviors. Addiction is a chronic illness. It needs to be treated by a professional, just like heart disease or diabetes. Giving addiction its proper place as a medical disorder helps makes addiction treatment available, affordable, and less stigmatized.


This article was written by guest writer, Patrick Bailey.

Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.

You’ll receive updates about new resources, patient stories and insights, advocacy work, and alerts about patient-support events.