Why Is Addiction Called a Disease?

According to Merriam-Webster, a disease can be defined as “a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” Addiction, meaning the chemical dependency upon drugs and alcohol, is a disease. Distinguishing signs and symptoms, normal functioning impaired- all the parts of the definition of what makes a disease aligns with what happens in the process of addiction.


Substance abuse can be considered a condition. Consistently, the body is being abused by substances which are being abused. Taking drugs and alcohol in high quantities impairs normal functioning until normal functioning no longer exists. Chemical dependency is the fullest development of addiction. In it, the condition of a living person and their specific parts of body and mind, become impaired in normal functioning. Without the presence of drugs and alcohol, the body and the brain can no longer function.


Curious to the ‘disease’ and the experience of addiction is relapse. Not all disease are relapsing and remitting. Addiction, however, is. Addiction is a fatal and progressive disease which is relapsing and remitting. The process of healing and living without addiction is called “recovery” because an individual is constantly recovering. Relapse as a natural part of addiction makes it impossible to be fully recovered. People in recovery learn to see every day as an opportunity to maintain their sobriety and their abstinence from abusing substances, which keeps their addiction at bay. Like a diabetic avoids sugar or someone with a heart condition avoids heavy saturated fats and chronic stress, the many lifestyle changes as well as therapeutic methods one learns in treatment becomes their ongoing recovery from addiction.


The primary reason addiction is referred to as a disease is because there has been a desperate need to shift the perspective on what addiction is. More importantly, there has been a desperate need to shift the perspective on who addicts are. Too often, “addict” is used synonymously with “criminal”, “immoral”, “sinner”, “low life”, and other negative connotations. Generally, the outlook on addiction has been that it is a “bad thing” and people who become addicted are “bad people” who need to go to treatment to “get good”. The disease model of addiction allows society to recognize that people who struggle with addiction and alcoholism, identifying themselves as addicts and alcoholics, are not bad people getting good. Instead, they are viewed as sick people who are getting well.