What Is Smoking Relapse and How to Avoid It

It’s not a secret that quitting smoking isn’t an easy feat. For many smokers, successfully quitting doesn’t happen on the first try. Smoking relapses happen, and while they aren’t what you hope will occur, it doesn’t mean quitting for good is impossible. If a relapse has happened or you’re worried it will during your smoking cessation journey, you aren’t alone. Read on to learn what to do if you relapse smoking and find out ways you can keep this roadblock from getting in the way of your path to quitting.

What Is a Smoking Relapse?

Simply put, a smoking relapse is when you begin smoking again after quitting for a period of time. That could be after a week, a few months, a year or more. A relapse may start as a small slip up—for example, having just one cigarette after a stressful day of work or smoking with a friend at a party—it often quickly turns back into a habit.

Smoking relapses are extremely common. After following a group of smokers for 20 years, one study found that 39% relapsed smoking after attempting to quit. Of that group, just fewer than 70% had successfully quit by the conclusion of the study.1 According to the CDC, fewer than 10% of adult smokers are successful in quitting each year.2 Altogether, the data makes one thing clear: For most smokers, at least one relapse is likely to occur. What’s important, however, is how you move forward from your relapse and continue your efforts to quit smoking.

How to Cope with a Smoking Relapse

If you find yourself reaching for a cigarette after you committed to quitting, you may feel emotions like frustration, hopelessness or anger with yourself. Avoid giving into these negative emotions or self-doubt and remember you can still quit; it’s just going to take some more work.

First, try to not allow a one- or two-cigarette slip up turn into a full-on relapse, or regular smoking habit.3 Remind yourself why you quit in the first place. Consider getting support by speaking with a friend or quitting counselor if you have one. Revisit or write down your reasons for quitting. Focus on making it through the next 24 hours without a cigarette.

If a slip up turns into a more serious relapse, remember that it doesn’t have to last forever. You may need to go back to your quit-smoking plan and make some adjustments, but you can still get back on the horse. Take time to reflect on why you want to quit: improving your health, bolstering relationships, saving money and more. Seek help or support if that will make quitting feel more achievable to you. Finally, make a renewed commitment to quitting again, whether you will try again tomorrow or in a couple of days.

What Triggers Smoking Relapse?

From emotions to events to even being around certain people, many things can trigger you to feel the urge to smoke. By understanding what your triggers are, you can more easily avoid those things and be better able to fight the craving if and when you feel it.

Triggers tend to fall into four different categories:4

Withdrawal. Feeling triggered to smoke due to withdrawal symptoms is more likely to occur earlier on in quitting. You might feel fidgety or restless, have a headache or be tempted by the smell or sight of cigarettes.

Emotional. Feeling certain emotions may make you crave a cigarette. Think: boredom, anxiety, excitement, tiredness, stress or relief.

Pattern. If you used to always smoke a cigarette before, during or after a certain task, it could be a trigger after quitting. For example, drinking coffee, driving, sitting on the porch or before going to bed.

Social. Being in a social situation may give you the urge to smoke, either because others are doing it or because you used to do so when in similar circumstances. That could be at a bar, at a party, with a friend who smokes, etc.

When you relapse, think about what happened leading up to smoking the cigarette. What kind of situation were you in? Who were you with? How did you feel? Use the relapse as an opportunity to learn about yourself and what can trigger smoking urges in you. That way, as you re-embark on your smoking cessation journey, you will be even better equipped to eliminate or stay strong around the things that threaten to knock you off the path.

Avoid Relapse with a Quit-Smoking Aid

During the first few weeks and even months after you quit smoking, your body is still going to crave nicotine and it’s likely you’ll feel symptoms of withdrawal.5 Most relapses that occur within the first three months of quitting are due to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings. Using a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as a nicotine patch, gum or lozenges, can help you manage those symptoms and lessen the intensity of cravings. NRT allows your body to more gradually wean off nicotine than quitting cold turkey.

Successfully quitting smoking doesn’t typically happen in a straight line. You may relapse and have to start again, once or possibly several times. By knowing what to do if you relapse, you can learn from the experience and be better prepared to try again on your own or with the help of nicotine replacement therapy.

  1. Relapse among Cigarette Smokers: The CARDIA longitudinal study - 1985–2011. ScienceDirect. Accessed 9/14/21.
  2. Smoking Cessation: Fast Facts. CDC. Accessed 9/14/21.
  3. What to do if you relapse after quitting. NHS. Accessed 9/14/21.
  4. Know Your Triggers. Accessed 9/14/21.
  5. Understand Withdrawal. Accessed 9/14/21.

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