"Say What?" is a periodic series in which we define scientific terms and explain their importance.
A person who’s trying to stop using drugs can sometimes start using them again. This return to drug use is called a “relapse.”
Relapse happens to a lot of people recovering from substance use disorders. That’s because it takes practice to learn how to live without drugs. Drug use affects the brain, and it can take time and effort for those effects to decrease.
Treatment and relapse
Stopping drug use is like trying to take care of your health in other ways. It's hard to learn to do things differently—like eating more vegetables and exercising more often—and to do them every day. It’s easy to fall back into old behaviors.
It can be even harder with quitting drugs. The changes that occur in the brains of addicted people make it very hard to follow through with resolutions to quit using, which is why medical treatment and other forms of support are so important.
People with substance use disorders might go back to treatment many times before it works. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. If someone relapses, they should get back into treatment as quickly as possible.
Relapse and risk
Although relapse is a normal part of recovery, for some drugs, a relapse can be very dangerous—even deadly. If a person uses as much of the drug as they did before they quit, they can easily overdose because their bodies aren’t used to having the drugs in their system anymore.
Fortunately, treatment can help to lower the chance of a relapse. To get information and referrals for drug use treatment, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Learn more: What can trigger a relapse?