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Drugs & Health Blog

Addiction Is a Disease

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
The NIDA Blog Team

Why can’t people who have an addiction “just stop” using drugs?

We get asked this question a lot. Sometimes it’s hard for friends and family members to understand why their loved one can’t just quit using the substance that is hurting them.

The reason it’s so difficult for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction is that it isn’t just a habit—it’s a disease. When a person takes drugs or drinks alcohol over a period of time, it can change their brain circuits. In fact, addiction changes the way that crucial parts of the brain function so much that the person has a very hard time stopping their use of drugs or alcohol—even when they want to.

Researchers call this the “brain disease model of addiction.” They view drug and alcohol addiction not as a problem caused by a lack of willpower, but instead as an illness that needs treatment.

Addiction beats up your brain

Brain science research has shown that addiction harms the brain in at least three ways:

  • It makes the brain’s reward circuits less sensitive. Addictive drugs cause the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that makes a person feel pleasure. If the person continues to take the drug over time, however, the circuit can become imbalanced. To get the same reward they got when they first used the drug, they need to take larger amounts of it. And natural rewards no longer give the person pleasure, causing them to lose interest in things they used to enjoy, like spending time with friends.
  • It increases the brain’s reaction to stress. Some brain circuits control our responses to stressful situations. In the brain of a person with addiction, that system of circuits becomes overactive, making people feel very stressed when they aren’t using drugs.
  • It weakens regions of the brain that help a person make good decisions. Drug addiction also affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps a person make decisions and control their impulses. It's like their car has worn-out brakes: even if they try to stop using the drug, they may not be able to control their impulse and take the drug anyway.

While many factors influence whether or not a person will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, teens are especially at risk. A person’s brain doesn’t stop developing until they’re in their early 20s; until then, their brain’s circuits are especially sensitive to the effects of drugs.

Treating the disease

Understanding addiction as a disease that changes the brain is helping researchers develop better treatments for it. Many people need help to overcome addiction. This doesn’t mean they’re weak; it means they’re fighting an illness that is tough (but not impossible!) to overcome.

Do you know someone who needs help? Visit or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to find addiction treatment near you.

Watch a video about how your brain works.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


I'm fully aware of why people can't just stop taking the highly addicting drugs that doctors keep prescribing. I became so addicted to ALL of my psychiatric drugs that coming off them was pure HELL. Yet, we keep telling pharmaceutical companies who pay doctors to prescribe them what a good job they're doing. The entire medical field, psychiatric field, and the FDA could care less how many individuals they get addicted to the drugs they prescribe or how many people they kill. Otherwise, something would be done about it. And nothing is. Just follow the money trail. The fact that pharmaceutical drugs in America has become the 3rd leading cause of death is appalling and sickening yet, nothing serious is done to prevent this, and nothing ever will. This recommendation that the FDA just put out is a joke. There isn't a doctor in the world who is currently taking bribes from Big Pharma to push their drugs who is going to even slow down on over prescribing any drugs let alone the opiods. It's a crime they continually get away with murdering so many innocent people when they've known for decades exactly how addicting opiods and ALL psychiatric drugs are. And our only crime was for believing and trusting these caring doctors who are wined & dined by big pharma. Who this really hurts is the people who really need to take opoids to treat ongoing pain. I don't have the answer but somebody has to know what it is. Let's start at the main core - big pharma. It's a very good start instead of them continually blaming the patient. We may have become addicted to the drugs they prescribe but we are not stupid, by any means. And yes, addiction may be a disease but lets look at it realistically. It's an iatrogenic illness caused by the doctors, not the patient.
that is really not needed that was true but a really mean way to say it
not needed
I am not quite sure why some have said your comments are not needed... 100% needed...What you said does not change the fact that these addictions are most certainly a disease...My son suffers greatly with managing this disease...I get this... but I am not enough...his "perfect" peers think exactly what was said above... Your comments about Big Pharma are dead on...
Addiction is a disease, so stop using the term disease model. You don't say the diabetes model or cancer model. If you really think it's a disease, you don't say disease model.
They use the term disease model because it is not a disease. There is no scientific evidence that has confirmed the disease model or theory to be true. It is a theory just like so many other theories of addiction.
It is also a family disease. It is escapism as modas operandi.
im a teenager and im getting deep into learning drugs aroun me im a 10 grader what do you mean a family disease

That’s a good question. Someone might refer to addiction as a family disease because the risk of developing drug and alcohol problems is higher in children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs—but it is NOT a guarantee. If you see drugs in your home, or at school, find an adult you can trust (like a school counselor or teacher) to learn how you can avoid getting involved with drugs. You can also check out this blog post to learn more:

It's a family disease because the whole family is affected by it. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and all the others that love a person who is addicted are affected by this awful disease and it's heartbreaking. Drug addiction is killing America because the big Pharms want that all mighty dollar.
All type of addiction is not a disease but some addictions are crossing every limit of sanity, then the addiction whether it is good or bad, it will be disease certainly
Never give up God bless everyone
why dose the things or the drugs have to be such rats. that is why i don't take much pills only stomach bug medicine because i Don't want all of them things happening to me.
Is drug addiction really a disease. What other disease can have jail as a consequence? Does drug addiction follow any other disease model? Perhaps it's more of a Compulsive behavior disorder.

Addiction can be measured as a physiological change in the brain; making it a physiological condition that can often be helped with medication. These changes consist of: (1) the desensitization of reward circuits; (2) addiction’s contribution to the increasing strength of conditioned responses and the brain’s reaction to stress; and (3) the weakening of brain regions involved in executive functions. There are other diseases and conditions that begin in the brain. While policymakers might debate how to handle some of the consequences of addiction, at NIDA we believe that addiction, like other brain disorders, should be medically treated.

Many parents view teens abusing substances as phase and do not believe THEIR offspring will develop an addiction. Heard so many times, "everyone is doing it". If a teen doesn't start or allowed to continue, then addiction won't happen. So,many teens say they use substances because they are depressed or to relieve stress,to relax. Parents and/or schools/societies need to address this.
i highly dissagre
the world is beutiful
When you use drugs, you are not only hurting yourself but your family and friends as well. Your family loves you but they are forced to sit in agony and watch as you slide into an abyss and eventually die. Before you take that next hit, think of them and also of that delicate piece of machinery that sits on top of your neck. Your brain is wired to perfectly run your body and all its parts. But if you insert drugs, or mind altering, brain damaging chemicals into your body, you eventually destroy the wiring and become someone you are not. YOU hold the key to your future.
I am a 9th grader and I think teens need to start listening to teachers and parents about not doing drugs it can affect you really bad but....Some teens don't have good parents some of the parents now days want to do drugs with the kids I know this only because I know people my age that do drugs with their parents and it's really sad that ends up to kids dropping out of school and kids now days need school they need to take advantage of what some parents didn't have you have a bright future ahead of you every kid does no matter how smart you are you can always get help there is no need to waste your time doing drugs when you have a future ahead of you....there's so many people that encourage kids not to do drugs and yet the kids take that wrong turn and want to test them out to see if it's the right thing or cuz their friends do they want to be cool or don't want to be judge NO you need to not be around kids that do that and NO doesn't matter how they make you feel or taste they aren't food that you eat its DRUGS they can ruin your body and ruin your future it's stupid that kids want to try them it's not cool if you ask me so kids need to really take advice from other people then go and explore for yourself.....I'm just saying I know I'm only a 9th grader but still you have a future TAKE ADVANTAGE
its not as simple as you think.
I do agree that Doctors and pharmacies alike will both write and fill a script when they should not be.. Doctors will write out a script for tranquillizers at the drop of a hat, and the pharmacies will fill this script time and time again, and the doctor will keep on re-writing the script.. But the addict is also dancing this dance, and the doctor and pharmacies become putty in their hands.. I believe that a doctor should not just be so quick to write out a script for tranquillizers, they need to examine the patient and treat that patient accordingly, but they will just write out a script "sommer so". . so wrong,,
Actually we need to understand the ethics of this particular topic, "Drug Addiction" here the word addiction, what do we really mean by this word? Well addiction in any good thing is also harmful & that is why we say it Addiction. When anyone is addict with drug or alcohol he or she become badly dependent on that. After periodic time Brain mainly functions different way or sometimes does not without that drug, and other body parts as well become weaker. So do not be confused either drug addiction is any disease or not. It is a dangerous disease which can be more difficult to cure after particular time.
In addiction there is no infectious agent (as in tuberculosis), no pathological biological process (as in diabetes), and no biologically degenerative condition (as in Alzheimer's disease). The only "disease-like" aspect of addiction is that if people do not deal with it, their lives tend to get worse.
In my experience, addiction really is a disease. It might not start off that way. In fact most addiction related diseases start off as a choice. However addiction is often a slippery slope, from prescription drug use and soon dependence to alcohol use.
thank you for this blog. I think teens need to listen to teachers and parents about drugs it can affect you really bad. It can also affect your future.
A lot of people commenting have seem to forgotten that, yes, it is an initial choice of the user to participate in doing drugs or drinking alcohol. BUT their are environmental, biological, and peer influences most often present during the first time. After the first time, there is no question that it becomes a disease. Your brain has become dependent onto the drug, it is important to be there for your family/friends because they will relapse. The best thing to do is offer support. Although, YOU find it inconvenient and irritating, I'm 100% positive they don't intend to hurt family/friends or ruin relationships. They are ill, and need constant reminder that they are loved by someone.

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