Most people will use alcohol or other substances at some point in their lives. However, only a fraction of those who initiate substance use will go on to develop a substance use disorder (SUD).
Drug and alcohol use can escalate to a disorder rapidly or slowly based on a person’s individual risk factors as well as the kind of substance that he or she uses.
Addiction—the severe form of a substance use disorder—is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive substance-seeking and use despite harmful consequences.1
It is considered a brain disease because in some people substance use changes how the brain functions. These changes make it progressively more difficult to stop the unhealthy behaviors that are common among people with an active SUD.
SUDs are diagnosed by assessing cognitive, behavioral, and psychological symptoms. They range from mild to severe and from temporary to chronic. SUDs typically develop gradually over time with repeated substance use, leading to impairments in areas of the brain that control reward, stress, decision-making, memory, and impulse-control.
But there is good news – addiction is a preventable and treatable disease from which people can and do recover.
Advancements have been made in assessments, treatment, recovery supports, and medications to address SUDs. Brain scans show that once a person is in recovery, the parts of the brain impaired by addiction can get better. Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical and long-term recovery support is often needed. Most people with severe SUDs need a multi-year treatment and recovery plan for best outcomes.