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Alcohol Relapse: Warning Signs, Triggers & Prevention

Last Updated: November 2, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Recovery from alcohol addiction is possible, but people sometimes experience relapses along the way. In fact, relapse is often considered a normal part of the recovery process. Still, there are ways to manage the risks of relapse so that you can stay sober and avoid the consequences of alcohol addiction.

What Is a Relapse? 

Most people think of relapse as being a return to drug or alcohol use after a period of sobriety. According to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse3, 40% to 60% of patients who are in treatment for drug abuse relapse at some point, indicating that relapse is quite common. 

Addiction experts1 tend to define relapse as a return to uncontrolled drug or alcohol use. According to this definition, a relapse involves more than simply using drugs or alcohol one time. Instead, it involves repeated substance abuse that causes a person to meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder4 once again. For example, a person is considered to have relapsed if they had a sober period but returned to regular substance use and began showing signs of addiction.

Related Topic: Is Alcohol a Drug?

Lapse vs. Relapse 

It is helpful to understand the difference between a lapse and a relapse. While a relapse involves a return to uncontrolled drug or alcohol use, a lapse is simply that initial drink or use of a drug after a period of sobriety.

The good news is that a lapse can also be seen as a “slip,” and it doesn’t mean that a person will relapse to full-blown addiction. It is possible to have a one-time lapse and then get back on track with sobriety. 

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Alcohol Relapse Rates 

Long-term relapse rates for those with alcohol use disorder are quite high. One study2 found that among people who stopped drinking without seeking any sort of treatment, the rate of relapse after 16 years was 60.5%. Among those who sought professional treatment for alcohol abuse, 42.9% had relapsed over a 16-year period. 

The good news is that relapse rates are significantly lower for those who seek alcohol addiction treatment compared to people who try to get sober on their own. The alcohol relapse rates from the study are also similar to drug relapse rates6 reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Signs of Alcohol Relapse

While alcohol relapse is common, there are warning signs that can prompt you to take action. Relapse is believed to occur1 in stages:

  • Emotional relapse: During this stage, a person may hold their emotions inside and stop using recovery resources like meetings.
  • Mental relapse: In this stage, they experience cravings and think of ways to drink without becoming out of control.
  • Physical relapse: This stage occurs when a person actually returns to drinking. 

Signs of a pending or full-blown relapse to alcohol use include:

  • Not going to treatment meetings or appointments
  • Isolating from other people
  • Holding feelings inside
  • Thinking about old drinking buddies
  • Struggling with alcohol cravings
  • Telling yourself it’s okay to “just have one drink”
  • Planning a time to drink
  • Going out with friends for drinks
  • Finding yourself drinking regularly again

High-Risk Situations for Relapse 

Relapse can happen to anyone, but there are certain scenarios that can increase the risk of relapse. If you find yourself in one of the following situations, you may be more likely to relapse: 

  • You are spending time with friends who are drinking.
  • You are hanging out in bars or clubs where alcohol is available.
  • You are going through a stressful situation, such as the loss of a job, and do not have adequate support.
  • You’ve stopped going to recovery group meetings or appointments with your counselor.
  • You are in contact with friends who are still drinking, or you’re spending time with people you used to drink with before you entered treatment.

Research has explored the specific factors that increase a person’s risk of alcohol relapse. Some identified factors include5:

  • Experiencing a mental health condition 
  • Struggling with negative emotions
  • Poor coping skills
  • High stress levels 
  • Poor physical health 

Relapse Prevention Plan

It’s important to have a relapse prevention plan in place so you know how to cope when faced with a relapse trigger. This plan should identify potential triggers for relapse and include actions you can take when you are faced with one. For example, your plan may include taking a walk, calling a supportive friend or practicing meditation when you experience triggers like stress or temptations to drink.

Your relapse prevention plan should also include activities like regular exercise, self-care and participation in therapy or support group meetings. Staying involved in these activities provides you with a healthy outlet for stress and reduces the risk that you will turn to alcohol to cope. 

What To Do After a Relapse

In the event that you do experience a relapse, do not panic. Remind yourself that relapse is common, and it doesn’t mean that your treatment has failed. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse6 explains, relapse means that it is time to adjust your treatment regimen or return to a treatment program.

If you experience relapse, it is important to be honest with your treatment provider. They can recommend new strategies or interventions that can help you achieve lasting sobriety. If you haven’t been in treatment, a relapse means it is probably time to seek out professional intervention. 

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

If you’re looking for help for alcohol addiction, or you’ve relapsed and don’t know where to turn, help is available at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper. Our facility offers alcohol rehab services for patients throughout the state of New Jersey and nearby cities like Philadelphia. We provide a full continuum of alcohol treatment services, including medical detoxinpatient careoutpatient programming and long-term aftercare

Overseen by a board-certified medical director, our multidisciplinary team of addiction experts is here to help you begin a healthier, alcohol-free future. Contact us to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your needs, and begin the admissions process today.


  1. Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed January 7, 2021.
  2. Moos, Rudolph H.; Moos, Bernice S. “Rates and predictors of relapse after na[…]lcohol use disorders.” Addiction, February 2006. Accessed January 7, 2021.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “How effective is drug addiction treatment?” June 3, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2021.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.” July 2, 2018. Accessed January 7, 2021.
  5. Sliedrecht, Wilco; et al. “Alcohol use disorder relapse factors: A systematic review.” Psychiatry Research, August 2019. Accessed January 7, 2022.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles Of Drug Addiction Treatment.” December 2012. Accessed October 25, 2022.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.