Addiction is an illness that is typified by a compulsion to take alcohol or drugs even when those substances are causing physical, mental, and social problems. Contrary to the opinions of many people, it is not caused by a lack of willpower. 

People who are addicted have undergone a change of brain function that makes it extremely difficult for them to quit drugs or alcohol. This rewiring is not completely reversible, which means that once people develop an addiction, it will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

If addiction cannot be cured, can anything be done to help addicts?

Medical experts liken addiction to other ongoing, or chronic, illnesses such as heart disease or Type 1 diabetes. These illnesses cannot be cured, but people who have them can respond well to treatment. 

How is addiction treated?

There are many different approaches to treatment. The first stage is to get an addicted patient to stop taking the addictive substance by undergoing a detox process. Depending on the substance involved, this may mean using other medications in the early stages. 

For example, people who are addicted to alcohol to the stage where they cannot function without having alcohol in their system should not stop taking alcohol without medical supervision. Doing so can cause a severe reaction, and can prove fatal. 

Good treatments need to take a holistic approach, dealing with all the physical and mental aspects of addiction. Most addiction treatment specialists encourage patients to undergo an intensive rehab at the start of their treatment, preferably in a residential environment.

Since addiction is incurable, treatment needs to be ongoing if the addict is to stay drug- or alcohol-free. 

Which addiction treatment works best?

There is no single treatment that works equally well for every addicted person. Treatment programs have to be adapted to each individual, and should be flexible enough to be modified if necessary.

The aims of any treatment program should be threefold. These aims are:

•   to get the addicted person to stop taking the addictive substance

•   to help the addicted person to stay drug- or alcohol-free

•   to help the addicted person get back to having a productive life in terms of work, social interaction and family relations

For most people with addictions, a combination of different treatment types is most likely to yield positive results.

While addiction is incurable, people who are addicted should be encouraged to seek help. The chances of conquering an addiction are much higher when expert help is involved. The earlier treatment intervention occurs, the better the prognosis for a drug- or alcohol-free future.