The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes cocaine as a powerfully addictive stimulant drug that is made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. Although health care providers sometimes use it for valid medical purposes, such as local anesthesia for some surgeries, cocaine is an illegal substance. Cocaine looks like a fine, white, crystal powder in street drug form. It is common for street dealers to dilute cocaine with things like cornstarch, talcum powder, or flour to increase profits. Sometimes is it also mixed with other drugs such as the stimulant amphetamine. Popular street names for cocaine include snow, coke, blow, rock and crack.
Cocaine is most commonly either snorted in powder form through the nose, or it is rubbed into gums. Some dissolve the cocaine powder in water and inject it intravenously. Some might even inject a combination of cocaine and heroin, called a Speedball.
Another popular method of use is by smoking cocaine that has been processed to make a solid rock crystal. The crystal rock is heated and produces vapors that are inhaled into the lungs. This form of cocaine is called Crack. Crack refers to the crackling sound of the rock as it is heated to be inhaled. People who use cocaine sometimes binge by using the drug repeatedly within a short time, at increasingly higher doses in order to maintain a high.
How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?
Cocaine affects the brain by increasing levels of the natural chemical messenger called dopamine which controls pleasure and movement. Usually, dopamine is released in these circuits in response to what the brain perceives as a reward, such as food. After its release, the dopamine then recycles back into the cell that it was released from and shuts off the signal between the nerve cells. Cocaine prevents dopamine from recycling back to the nerve cells that released it and causes excessive amounts to build up between nerve cells. This surplus of dopamine disturbs the normal communication within the brain and causes cocaine’s high.
The short-term health effects of cocaine according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse include:
- extreme elation and energy
- heavy mental alertness
- hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch
- paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
Some people feel that cocaine helps them perform simple physical and mental tasks more quickly, but other people experience the opposite effect. Large amounts of binging cocaine can cause strange, unpredictable, and unstable behavior.
Cocaine’s effects can appear fairly quickly within a few short seconds and then disappear within a few minutes to an hour. How long the effects last and how intense they are depend on the method of use. Injecting or smoking cocaine tends to produce a quicker and stronger but shorter-lasting high (5-10 min) in contrast to snorting it (15-30 min).
Some long-term health effects of cocaine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, depend on the method of use and include the following:
- When snorting: loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, frequent runny nose, and problems with swallowing.
- Orally: severe bowel decay from reduced blood flow.
- Intravenous: higher risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases through the use of needles. Even people using cocaine without needles can be at risk for HIV because cocaine impairs judgment, which can lead to risky sexual behavior with infected partners.
There are other long-term effects of cocaine which can include malnourishment due to decreased appetite and even movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, which may occur after many years of using cocaine. Additionally, people report irritability and restlessness resulting from cocaine use, and some also experience extreme paranoia, in which they lose touch with reality and may hear noises that aren’t real.
Is it Possible to Overdose on Cocaine?
Yes, it is possible for a person to overdose on cocaine. An overdose occurs when an individual uses too much of a drug and has a serious reaction that can result in adverse symptoms or death. An overdose can may sometimes not be intentional.
Death from overdose is possible on the first use of cocaine or unexpectedly after use. It is particularly dangerous to drink alcohol while using cocaine, something that can also lead to decreased inhibitions and consequently overdose. Some may even mix cocaine with heroin which is a deadly combination.
Frequently, individuals experience consequences leading to overdose that also include the heart and blood vessels. Heart rhythm and heart attacks, and the nerves, including seizures and strokes may all be affected by the use of cocaine.
Cocaine Addiction Treatment
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that treatment for cocaine addiction is multi-faceted. First, behavioral therapy may be used to treat the addiction, such as:
- cognitive-behavioral therapy
- contingency management, or motivational incentives—providing rewards to patients who remain substance free
- therapeutic communities—drug-free residences in which people in recovery from substance use disorders help each other to understand and change their behaviors
Although there are no government-approved medications are currently available to treat cocaine addiction, researchers are testing some treatments including:
- disulfiram (used to treat alcoholism)
- modanifil (used to treat narcolepsy—a disorder characterized by uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep)
- lorcaserin (used to treat obesity)