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NIDA. (2010, January 26). Word of the Day: Relapse. Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
January 26 2010
Woman sitting next to a wall looking concerned

Relapse…If you keep up with the SBB you know by now that addiction is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that takes hold in some people who abuse drugs. You may also know that some people can quit their drug use. But often a person will return to using drugs after they have quit. This is what NIDA Scientists call a relapse.

Why does it happen? Addiction changes the wiring of the brain to cause uncontrollable craving and compulsive drug use—despite the consequences. For someone with an addiction, going without the drug for periods of time can make that person feel so anxious and stressed that they need the drug just to stop feeling bad.

A person who is addicted to a drug usually needs professional treatment to quit drug use. This can include medication or "talk therapy (PDF, 1.19 MB)," or a combination of both. It also helps to have support in the family and the community. While quitting drug use is possible, addiction is a long-lasting disease, and treating it takes time-and just because someone gets treatment and stops using a drug does not mean that these strong cravings go away for good, especially when certain cues are present. These cues vary from person to person and can trigger a relapse.

Imagine that your best friend is addicted to cigarettes and says she smokes to relieve stress, but that she recently quit because her boyfriend hates the smell of cigarette smoke. Since she has connected cigarette smoking with stress relief, the next time your friend faces a stressful situation, like a fight with parents or final exams, she will most likely crave a cigarette, increasing her risk of a relapse. Her use of cigarettes, which led to an addiction to nicotine, has also caused her to associate "relaxation" with cigarettes.

Not everyone will relapse once they have quit drug use; it depends on the person, their genes, their environment, and many other factors, including personal commitment and family support.

For more information on addiction and today's "Word of the Day," check out the myths about drug abuse or the Brain and Addiction page on the NIDA for Teens website.