Top of an open beer canRelapse occurs when a previous medical or mental health condition re-occurs.

What is Relapse?

Relapse is a return to symptoms of a condition after a period free of symptoms. For example, a person with depression might experience relief on medication or while in therapy but then begin exhibiting symptoms again a few months into treatment. While relapse can refer to any return of a medical condition, its most common colloquial use refers to the return of symptoms of addiction after a period of sobriety. A recovering alcoholic might begin drinking again after weeks, months or years without using. Similarly, a compulsive gambler might stop gambling only to start again.

What Causes Relapse?

Medical conditions sometimes get better and then suddenly get worse. Occasionally, a person will stop medical treatment when symptoms go away, and this can cause relapse. In the case of people who are addicted, relapse is commonly conceived of as a part of the process of recovering from addiction. Many people with addiction relapse several times before they enter permanent sobriety, and some addiction counselors argue that relapse enables recovery by teaching an addicted person how to do better with each attempt at sobriety.

Addicts frequently relapse during times of stress, or when they are exposed to circumstances that trigger their addiction. For example, an alcoholic who drank heavily at parties might be more likely to relapse after attending several parties. Relapse also has a strong chemical component. It can take weeks for an addictive substance to fully exit a person’s body, and the brain may be especially susceptible to the addictive substance even after it has been flushed out. This is why most addiction counselors advise people with addiction to never use the substance again, even once. Relapse typically means that the addiction has re-emerged, and often means that the addicted person will have to complete the entire process of withdrawal and psychological distress again.


  1. Foster, L. (n.d.). Understanding addiction relapse. Retrieved from
  2. Preventing a relapse. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-20-2015

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