Nicotine Relapse: Why Quitting Smoking Is Not Easy?

Last Updated: December 18, 2019

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

Nicotine relapse or smoking relapse is a very common problem among the smokers. They know the harms of smoking, or even know how to quit it.
But not smoking for the rest of their life often seems impossible. To make things worse, all these may happen even when they are taking some medications to cut down the urges.
They stay clean for a few days or months, something wrong happens with their thoughts, and they slip back again. The degree of nicotine dependence is so high that they may restart smoking even a decade after discontinuing it. However, the risk of nicotine relapse decreases proportionately to the time of abstinence.

Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical that they obtain by consuming different tobacco products. To get their dose, they may smoke a cigarette or cigar. Similarly, chewing or snuffing also provides enough of it to cause the dependence.
While tobacco products contain thousands of chemicals, only nicotine is responsible for causing a dependence. It’s not clear if it causes cancer. But other harmful chemicals that enter the body through the smoke cause various types of cancer. As a matter of fact, there is not a system in the body that smoking does not harm.

How Smoking Causes Addiction?

When taking the first puff of the cigarette, a certain amount of nicotine enters the bloodstream quickly. This is in contrast to chewing tobacco. Then, it reaches the brain.
Because it is soluble in oil, it can readily cross the biological barriers in the brain. This whole process takes approximately 10 seconds.
Once inside the brain, it increases the activity of a brain chemical which they call dopamine. It then starts a series of physical and psychological symptoms of Nicotine use. The short-term effects of smoking are pleasurable and relaxing. Thus, making it the main reason why quitting smoking it is so difficult.

In fact, many other addictive substances also work in a similar manner. That is by activating the dopamine pathway in the brain.

Factors That May Lead To High Nicotine Relapse Rate

It’s not only that activated dopamine plays a solo role in Nicotine relapse. In fact, it occurs due to a series of complex mechanisms in the brain. Individual genetic, physical and psychological characteristics have their share. Many of them are still unknown. New scientific studies have shed on various other factors too. They include:

  • Quick and short-term high: Smoking is one of the most efficient ways to get a quick high. Most notably, the high wears out within a few minutes causing a need for another cigarette. Understandably, smoking relapse is far more common than one may think.
  • Changes in communication mechanism inside the brain: They suggest Nicotine relapse is triggered by a dysfunctional communication between the brain cells. Moreover, it may also lead to low moods, mild anxiety, and irritation. Regrettably, these mood changes again trigger a smoking relapse.
  • Long and quick withdrawal: Within a few hours after one had a last cigarette, the withdrawal periods starts. Unfortunately, the duration of withdrawal may last as long as a few months. This is the time when they are more likely to smoke again.
  • More prominent psychological dependence: During an abstinence, severe physical symptoms are less likely. Nicotine affects the senses. For example, how a person would feel if they were smoking, handling a cigarette or even lighting it. All these psychological experiences provoke a smoker to light a cigarette right at the moment. In essence, it affects how they experience the whole process of smoking.

Fast Facts On Nicotine Relapse

  • As a matter of fact, as many as 80% of the smokers who are trying to quit fall victim to Nicotine relapse. Unlike the withdrawal from other addictive substances like heroin or cocaine, nicotine withdrawal does not produce severe symptoms.
  • The rate of smoking relapse drops to less than 1% after ten years of abstinence. Between 2 to 6 years after abstinence, the rate is almost 4%.
  • If one does not smoke for two years, the chances of not having a smoking relapse for the rest of the life surges to 80%.

Avoiding Nicotine Relapse

If a person is failing to quit smoking completely, do not feel bad. Remember what Mark Twain once said about smoking relapse.

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

Here are some tips that may help one prevent Nicotine relapse.

  • Stay motivated: One or even a hundred failures should not hold ont back. Do not lose the sight of the goal. The benefits of quitting are definitely worth these failures.
  • Avoid the situations or environment that may provoke an individual to smoke.
  • Indulge in some pleasurable activity. Distraction is key to making the urges less powerful. Think of playing some sports, joining a gym or dancing to a favorite music.
  • Talk to a doctor if these self-management measures are not working.

Talk to the experts to know more about Nicotine relapse. If  anyone has an addiction, they should talk to an addiction counselor. They can teach ways to deal with the cravings, prevent relapses. Finally, the addict will be on their way to a full recovery.
Looking for professional medical help for Nicotine addiction? Get the best rehabs page here.

Page Sources

  1. Daly M, Egan M. Childhood cognitive ability and smoking initiation, relapse and cessation throughout adulthood: evidence from two British cohort studies. Addiction. 2017 Apr;112(4):651-659.
  2. Blok DJ, de Vlas SJ, van Empelen P, van Lenthe FJ. The role of smoking in social networks on smoking cessation and relapse among adults: A longitudinal study. Prev Med. 2017 Jun;99:105-110.
  3. Song F, Bachmann MO, Aveyard P, Barton GR, Brown TJ, Maskrey V, Blyth A, Notley C, Holland R, Sutton S, Brandon TH. Relapse to smoking and health-related quality of life: Secondary analysis of data from a study of smoking relapse prevention. PLoS One. 2018.

Published on: April 18th, 2017

Updated on: December 18th, 2019

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.


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