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How to Recover From a Smoking Relapse

Even if you’ve managed to quit, it’s not unusual to have a smoking relapse and start smoking regularly again. Most smokers make multiple attempts to kick the habit, and evidence shows it may take seven to nine attempts to stop smoking successfully.i

Why Do People Relapse?

Giving up smoking isn’t easy, which is why so many people relapse after successfully quitting. There are many reasons why you might have a smoking relapse, including:

  • You’re addicted to nicotine - When you smoke nicotine is delivered to your brain, where it releases the ‘feel-good’ hormone dopamine, which is what gets smokers hooked.
  • Withdrawal symptoms are tough - Most smokers experience unpleasant symptoms when they quit, including anxiety, lack of concentration, depressed mood, weight gain, irritability, and cravings.
  • It’s hard to break the habit - If you’ve been smoking for a while, it will have become a habit. Your brain will expect nicotine at certain times of the day or alongside other activities such as drinking alcohol, which makes it harder to quit and easier to relapse.
  • Smoking makes you ‘feel better’ - Whether you enjoy the sensations associated with smoking, or believe that it helps you deal with stress or anxiety, it’s harder to quit if you’re emotionally dependent on tobacco.


Smoking Relapse Timeline – The Health Benefits of Quitting

Most smokers who try to quit will experience a smoking relapse – particularly in the early stages when withdrawal symptoms are strongest.ii But don’t give up. Stopping smoking brings health benefits for years to come. Take a look at this handy timeline to see how your body recovers after smoking your last cigarette or cigar, and when to watch out for pitfalls:v

  • After 20 minutes - your heart rate drops.
  • After 12 hours - carbon monoxide levels in your blood drop to normal.
  • After 2-3 weeks - your heart attack risk begins to drop and your lung function begins to improve.
  • After 1-9 months - your coughing and shortness of breath decrease.
  • After 1 year - your added risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker’s.
  • After 5 years - your stroke risk is reduced to that of a non-smoker (5-15 years after quitting).
  • After 10 years - your lunch cancer death rate is about half that of a smoker’s. Your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas decreases.
  • After 15 years - your risk of coronary heart disease is back to that of a non-smoker’s.

Alongside all these great benefits, giving up smoking can also help you sleep better.

How to Deal With a Smoking Relapse

If you’ve had a relapse, don’t beat yourself up. It’s not unusual to experience a few bumps along the way when you are trying to quit. Follow these simple tips to get back on track:

  • Get some support - you’re more likely to stop smoking if you seek expert help.iii
  • Curb the cravings - discard your cigarettes, forgive yourself and then get back on track. Using nicotine replacement therapy, such as Nicorette® Gum, helps to reduce your withdrawal symptoms. And chewing nicotine gum, when used as directed, can double your chances of a successful quit.iv
  • Avoid your triggers - avoiding the triggers that make you want to smoke can help, so distract yourself whenever you would typically reach for a cigarette. Try deep breathing, doing something else, or going for a walk. Remember cravings usually only last 15-20 minutes.
  • Keep learning - quitting is a learning experience, and just like riding a bike, you might have to fall off a few times before you master a new skill. If you have a slip, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it just means you need to keep on learning.

If you’re looking for some more inspiration to help you get over a smoking relapse, read these 10 incredible stories about what happens when you go smoke-free.


i. Estimating the number of quit attempts it takes to quit smoking successfully in a longitudinal cohort of smokers. BMJ Open. 2016;6:e011045. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011045

  1. Your Year to Quit Smoking. FDA. Accessed 09/01/19.
  2. 10 Self Help Tips to Stop Smoking. NHS Choices. Accessed 09/01/19.
  3. What Is Nicotine Gum? Nicorette®. Accessed 09/01/19.
  4. Within 20 Minutes of Quitting. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 06/04/20.

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