Scientists Say: Relapse | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Relapse

This is what happens when someone’s health gets worse, after it had been getting better
Apr 22, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
a blurry person sits with their head on their knees against a wall, a scale is in focus in the foreground

People with mental illnesses such as eating disorders can relapse. They go back to harmful eating habits after they had been eating healthfully.

Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Relapse (verb, noun, “REE-laps”)

This is a word that doctors and scientists use to describe an illness that gets worse after a time when the patient seemed to be getting better. For example, a bacterial infection may respond to an antibiotic prescribed to treat it. But a patient may not finish all their antibiotics. Or the bacteria may change, developing resistance to the drug. Then, the bacteria may come roaring back, making the patient sick again.

People can also relapse after cancer treatment. A tumor may respond to a drug and get smaller. But over time, the cancer cells might adapt to resist the drugs that once would have killed it.  The cancer then can again start to grow. Mental illnesses can also relapse. Someone’s depression, drug abuse, anxiety or eating disorder might respond to treatment at first. But a new life stress might make the patient relapse. 

In a sentence

People with eating disorders may recover and relapse many times, which makes the illnesses hard to treat. 

Check out the full list of Scientists Say. 

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

addict  An individual that suffers from a disease that provokes the uncontrolled use of a habit-forming drug or uncontrolled or unhealthy habit (such as video game playing or phone texting). Their illness is triggered by brain changes that occur after using some drugs or engaging in some extremely pleasurable activities. People with an addiction will feel a compelling need to use a drug (which can be alcohol, the nicotine in tobacco, a prescription drug or an illegal chemical such as cocaine or heroin), even when the user knows that doing so risks severe health or legal consequences.

antibiotic     A germ-killing substance, usually prescribed as a medicine (or sometimes as a feed additive to promote the growth of livestock). It does not work against viruses.

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals). Bacteria are one of the three domains of life on Earth.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

depression      (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

disorder     (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.

drug abuse     Another term for substance abuse. It refers to a condition where people may become dependent or even addicted to alcohol, tobacco or other types of drugs (either street drugs or prescription medications). These people do not use drugs to treat a medical condition but as an unhealthy way to alter the way they think, feel or respond to outside stimuli.

eating disorder     An illness of the mind involving dangerously unhealthy patterns of eating and weight loss or gain.

relapse     (in health and medicine) To begin deteriorating after a period of stability or improvement.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

tumor     A mass of cells characterized by atypical and often uncontrolled growth. Benign tumors will not spread; they just grow and cause problems if they press against or tighten around healthy tissue. Malignant tumors will ultimately shed cells that can seed the body with new tumors. Malignant tumors are also known as cancers.