Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

5 Ways to Prevent Relapse After Quitting Smoking

Quitting smoking is hard and staying smoke-free can be even harder. These science-backed strategies can help you avoid relapse.

If you’re an ex-smoker, congratulations! You’re in good company – according to the CDC, there are now more former smokers than current smokers

Still, you know how challenging it is to stay away from cigarettes. Here are some tips that can help you maintain your ex-smoker status.

Prevent smoking relapse
Staying smoke-free can be a challenge, but support groups and medication can help.

1. Consider staying on medication.

“The longer you take medication the less likely you are to relapse,” says David Balis, M.D., Medical Director of the UT Southwestern smoking cessation program. “People often come to me and they’ve smoked 20 to 60 years. They aren’t going to be done in a week, or even a month or two.” 

Ex-smokers can take three types of medication – nicotine replacement, Wellbutrin, and Chantix. Dr. Balis says if a medication has side effects, doesn’t work, or isn’t covered by insurance, you can try others. You can also try certain medications in combination.

While everyone’s plan is individualized, Dr. Balis recommends staying on medication for six months. People who have relapsed many times might want to extend that to a year. “It’s all about weighing the risks and benefits for that patient,” he says. “If you’re still having cravings, thinking about cigarettes, and exposed to smoking, you’re at higher risk and you might want to go longer.”

2. Stick with a smoking cessation program. 

Smoking cessation programs can help ex-smokers, too. The program at UT Southwestern is free, and offers individual counseling with Dr. Balis and three counselors as well as group therapy sessions. 

At your first visit, you can get a prescription for a smoking cessation medication, and the team will help you find one your insurance covers.

3. Recognize and anticipate situations where you’re at high risk of relapse. 

High-risk situations are when you’re around other smokers and when you’re dealing with stress. “You need to manage or avoid those situations,” Dr. Balis says. “Now that you’re not a smoker, you need to find another way to cope. Nonsmokers don’t turn to cigarettes.”

4. Prepare yourself with distractions for times when cravings strike. 

“The cravings don’t last forever,” says Dr. Balis, “and if you use a distraction, they go away faster.”

Keep your mind, mouth, and hands busy and the craving will go away faster, he says. 

Here are some ways you can draw your attention away from a craving:

  • Reach for gum, candy, a toothpick, or a straw
  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Count to 10
  • Call someone
  • Get on your computer
  • Do some housework or yardwork
  • Listen to music, watch some TV, or read a book
  • Do something artistic

5. If you relapse, treat yourself with kindness. 

“Over time the cravings go away and it gets easier, but the risk of relapse is always present. It’s not zero,” Dr. Balis says. 

While everyone’s plan is individualized, Dr. Balis recommends staying on medication for six months. People who have relapsed many times might want to extend that to a year. “It’s all about weighing the risks and benefits for that patient,” he says. “If you’re still having cravings, thinking about cigarettes, and exposed to smoking, you’re at higher risk and you might want to go longer.”

Remember that it takes most people multiple attempts to be successful. “If something happens, it’s not the end of the world. You can try again. You’ve done it. The goal is, next time, to make it permanent,” he says. 

Call the Cancer Answer Line at 1-833-722-6237.