What Is Relapse?

Relapse is defined as a return of a disease or condition (or the signs and symptoms of a disease or condition) after a period of improvement. Relapse commonly refers to returning to the use of drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence. Relapse is frequently witnessed in individuals who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction or dependency. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that between 40-60 percent of people facing addiction will experience relapse.

What Causes Relapse?

There are several reasons relapse occurs, in both medical conditions and addiction.

In instances of addiction, some of the most common reasons people relapse include:

  • Stress
  • Challenging or negative emotions
  • People, places, and circumstances associated with the addictive behaviour
  • Seeing or being reminded of the substance of choice
  • Celebrations such as birthdays, holidays, and more where drugs or alcohol are present

Another common cause of addiction relapse is having an underlying mental health problem that is undiagnosed. In many instances, individuals use drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings associated with conditions such as anxiety or depression. If a person overcomes addiction but does not get treatment for the underlying condition, the overwhelming emotions associated with the condition can trigger a relapse.

In medical illnesses such as cancer, a person may relapse because treatment failed to kill all cancer cells in a person’s body. For example, chemotherapy kills cancer cells that are in the process of forming two new cells. Not all cancer cells divide at the same time however, in which case a person may experience a relapse. Some biological therapies may leave behind small cancer cells that begin to grow after a period of time, eventually developing into larger tumours after treatment ends.


If a person relapses after quitting drugs or alcohol, there are different approaches they can take to avoid relapse in the future. Medication and various therapies are often used to help in relapse, and is typically used after a person has undergone detox and treatment.

Medication: There are several medications that are used to help a person addicted to drugs or alcohol avoid relapse. In the case of alcohol addiction, the three most common medications used to prevent relapse include: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. Naltrexone and acamprosate both work to reduce cravings, while disulfiram makes a person sick if they drink while taking it.

Some of the most common medications to prevent relapse in substances such as heroin and other opioids include methadone, suboxone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine. These medications have been designed to help a person prevent relapse of heroin and opioid addiction. While commonly used, these medications can also cause dependency and have the potential for abuse themselves.

Psychotherapy: Therapy may also be used to either prevent relapse or help a person after they have relapsed. Cognitive behavioural therapy is commonly used in addiction treatment, and can help a person recognise the thoughts and emotions that can lead to using drugs or alcohol. Other types of psychotherapy (such as talk therapy) can help a person better understand their addiction and learn different ways to avoid relapse.

Relapse Statistics

  • Relapse rates for addiction are between 40-60 percent.
  • Relapse rates for addiction to opioids hold an 85 percent chance after one year of abstinence.
  • Relapse rates for alcohol addiction are approximately 40 percent in those who have sought treatment and had a period of remission
  • Methamphetamine has one of the highest relapse rates at 93 percent.
  • Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, has shown a 6 percent relapse rate who have been in remission for 10 years in more than 1 in 20 patients.
  • Relapse rates for hypertension are between 50-70 percent.

External Links

Why some cancers come back, Cancer Research UK

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