What is Addiction?



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 addiction need a multi-year treatment and recovery plan for best outcomes.





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Addiction & the Brain: A Video for Kids

Need help explaining addiction to your kids? Check out our new video, “Addiction & the Brain.” Created in partnership with Prevention Action Alliance, a statewide organization based in Ohio, the video explains how repeated substance misuse can hijack the brain, and why delaying use until the brain has matured is so important.

Learn More

Get Help

Important Phone Numbers:

Addiction Resource Center Helpline

(833) 301-4357

SAMSHA Treatment Referral Hotline

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The Trevor Project (LBGTQ)

Drug-Free Workplace Help

The Alcohol & Drug Addiction Resource Center

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline

National Help Line for Substance Abuse

Poison Control


NIDA. (2014, July 1). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction on 2017, July 7