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Addiction: What is Addiction?

What is addiction? Addiction is a brain disease. It’s a chronic disease, a long-lasting condition that can be managed, but not cured. Just like asthma is a chronic lung disease, addiction is a chronic brain disease. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol aren’t bad people. They are people with a disease that needs treatment.

People start using drugs or alcohol for lots of different reasons. Usually, it’s because it makes them feel better. Sometimes they use to help deal with stress or as an attempt to self-medicate an underlying mental health condition. But after a while, drugs and alcohol damage the brain and change how it works. The addiction takes hold.

In addiction, drug or alcohol use overstimulates and confuses the brain’s pleasure sensors, so they start shutting down. As a result, more and more of the drug is needed to feel good.  Eventually, the addicted person needs the drug just to feel normal. Eventually the parts of the brain that control judgment and decision making are damaged, so the addict starts to value the drug above all else—more than family, friends, school and career.

(Learn more about what addiction is and what addiction does to the brain in this Spotlight feature article.)

Addiction affects people from all walks of life. More than 20 million Americans have a drug or alcohol problem. Children of addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves, and people who start using drugs or alcohol in their teens are at higher risk for addiction.

Some people are more at risk for addiction because of differences in their brain systems. Home environments, social environments and the presence of other mental conditions, such as depression, also influence whether someone becomes an addict. But with addiction treatment, or rehab, most addicted people can be helped.

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