Drug addiction is a chronic disease, like high blood pressure or asthma. All chronic diseases have a chance of relapse; it’s a normal part of treatment and recovery.

Yes. People with a substance abuse disorder have between a 40–60% chance of drug relapse, and for some drugs, this may be as high as 90%. To understand why drug relapse rates appear to be so high, a person must understand the medical meaning of a chronic condition.

Substance use disorder is recognized as a chronic condition with relapsing-remitting cycles. Remission is a state of wellness when someone is not showing symptoms of addiction, and relapse is when those symptoms return.

In medicine, a chronic condition is usually never cured but is treated or managed to lessen symptoms or reduce long-term damage. So while acute conditions like a skin infection or appendicitis can be cured, chronic conditions like high blood pressure, asthma, low thyroid or addiction can only be treated. Drug and alcohol rehab programs have been shown to be effective tools for addiction recovery.

Drug Relapse Statistics

In 2017, studies estimated that about 25% of people in the United States had active substance use disorder or substance use disorder in remission.

Among people with a substance use disorder, only about 14% of them report they were abstinent of all drugs in the year prior. Therefore, for people with addiction, relapse is a common part of the process.

Relapse does not mean that treatment has failed, in the same way, that an asthma attack does not mean that asthma treatment has failed. For someone with asthma, attacks are a normal part of life. The goal of treatment is to reduce the number of attacks, the severity of attacks and how much harm attacks cause when they occur.

What Drug Has the Highest Relapse Rate?

Relapse rates can vary dramatically from person to person, making it difficult to pinpoint which drug has the highest relapse rate. However, some studies show a greater than 80% relapse rate for opioids, making them one of the substances with the highest chance of relapse.

What Drug Has the Lowest Relapse Rate?

The differences between the most relapsed drugs and the least are minimal. While not much information exists about relapse rates for specific substances, one study found that individuals who were addicted to alcohol had the highest rate of abstinence at discharge from treatment. However, regardless of the drug used, studies have found between 65–75% chance of relapse in the 90-day period following treatment.

Why Do People Relapse on Drugs?

People relapse on drugs or alcohol for a few established reasons. For the best chance of avoiding relapse, someone with substance use disorder should work to:

  • Avoid or cope with triggers: Triggers may include the environment or where a person lives. Perhaps they live in a neighborhood with many bars, or they have many friends who use drugs. Triggers can also include stressful situations or even locations that bring back positive memories of drug use.
  • Build a strong social support system: Friends and family should be supportive of an abstinent lifestyle. People can act as a trigger by providing either positive (peer pressure) or negative (stress or tension) reasons to use drugs or alcohol. Someone in addiction recovery needs to build a strong and positive set of social support to give them the best chances for recovery.
  • Develop skills needed to stop drinking or using drugs: These skills usually include coping mechanisms like meditation and mindfulness. Other skills can be hobbies or methods to relax the individual without drug or alcohol use.
  • Work toward a set of reachable goals: Complete abstinence 100% of the time may be an unreasonable goal for some individuals. Because of this, some people may choose to partake in harm reduction treatment for addiction, which seeks to reduce the risk associated with substance use.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction is a Chronic Relapsing Illness

Addiction is a chronic medical condition with relapsing-remitting cycles. Throughout the course of the disease, suffers will experience periods of abstinence and periods of symptoms. The symptoms may escalate to drug use, but they may also stop at cravings for those with good coping mechanisms.

For those with addiction, relapse may be normal, but help is available. If you or a loved one needs help with an addiction, The Recovery Village is available. We can provide treatment options and locations in your area if you or a loved one decides to seek treatment. Recovery is a lifelong process, and we are here to help when you’re ready. Reach out to a representative today to get started. 

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

<p>Chalana, Harsh, et al. <a href=”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5046044/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>“Predictors of Relapse after Inpatient Opioid Detoxification during 1-Year Follow-Up</a>.” 2016. Accessed July 28, 2019.</p>
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<p>National Institute on Drug Abuse. “<a href=”https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Treatment and Recovery</a>.” 2019. Accessed July 28, 2019.</p>
<p>Sinha, Rajita.<a href=”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674771/#R2″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> “New Findings on Biological Factors Predicting Addiction Relapse Vulnerability.”</a> Current Psychiatry Reports, 2011. Accessed July 28, 2019.</p>
<p>Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Office of the Surgeon General (US). <a href=”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424847/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>“Important Facts About Alcohol and Drugs.”</a> November 2016. Accessed July 28, 2019.</p>

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.