Why is Cocaine Dangerous and Addictive?

man addicted to cocaine

Cocaine is a potent stimulant that is also highly addictive. Most cocaine sold on the street comes from Columbia, Peru, or Bolivia. The drug is made from the leaves of South American cocoa trees (Erythroxylon coca) that grow in the Andes mountain range.

Most people think of cocaine in the form of a white powder, but it’s often sold as a rock crystal known as freebase cocaine. Crack cocaine is created by combining freebase cocaine with water and baking soda.

Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are pharmacologically identical, but they are consumed very differently. Powdered cocaine can be snorted, mixed with water and injected intravenously, ingested through the mouth, or rubbed on the gums. Crack cocaine is smoked.

Cocaine goes by many names, including “snow,” “coke,” “flake,” and “blow.” It is sometimes cut with talcum powder, cornstarch, or flour to increase dealer profit margins.

Cocaine causes exhilaration, stamina, and talkativeness in the short term. Cocaine users may feel more attentive and energetic for a short period of time.

Cocaine is a very popular substance because it is so easy to access. According to Drugabuse.org, cocaine is the second most common recreational drug in the United States after cannabis. Currently, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II-restricted drug, which means it is only authorized for medical purposes. The federal government and most states have harsh penalties for cocaine possession and consumption.

Since 2009, cocaine usage in the United States has been relatively stable. Cocaine use is now highest among young people between the ages of 18 and 25. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1.5 million Americans use cocaine on a monthly basis, with another 2 million meeting the threshold for abuse.

The Truth About Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine is powerfully addictive due to the way it changes the brain. Taking cocaine disrupts the balance of the chemical messengers in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, that play a role in regulating pleasure and pain. One such neurotransmitter is dopamine, the brain’s “feel good” chemical.

Cocaine interferes with the reabsorption of dopamine in the brain, resulting in an overabundance of this neurotransmitter. This creates a short-lived feeling of intense pleasure and heightened sensation. That’s why cocaine is known as an “upper” due to its very intense stimulation of the brain.

People who use cocaine want to replicate that intense feeling. When they can’t access cocaine, they may experience anxiety and depression.

Cocaine use has both physical and psychological consequences. These include:

  • Increased alertness
  • Decreased hunger (leading to weight loss)
  • Increased confidence
  • Feelings of well-being or euphoria

Physical effects include:

  • Constricted blood vessels (blood pressure and heart rate increase)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Tremors and convulsions
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Numbness in various parts of the body

Most people won’t become physically addicted to cocaine after using it one time, but you can become psychologically addicted to how cocaine makes you feel right away. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), crack cocaine users can become addicted after only one use. With powdered cocaine, it usually takes at least a few times before users become addicted.

Nonetheless, cocaine users can quickly become accustomed to the feelings that the drug causes. As a result, they may find themselves needing more significant amounts to maintain that sense of euphoria.

Cocaine tolerance builds up quickly, meaning that those who use the drug will have to keep increasing their dosage to achieve the desired effect. This prolonged use is what leads to a physical addiction.

When individuals use cocaine for a long time, the drug actually changes how the brain works. People who stop taking cocaine find it harder to control their impulses and have little self-control because their brains no longer produce normal amounts of dopamine. Many people crave that high they felt when they first started using cocaine, which can lead to addiction.

Why Is Cocaine Such A Dangerous Drug?

There’s a common myth that cocaine use isn’t dangerous or that you can’t overdose on it. The truth is, there is no “safe amount” of cocaine. The National Center for Health and Statistics reports that more than 14,600 people in the United States died of a cocaine-related overdose in 2018. Deaths from these overdoses have been rising since 2013.

Even if you take cocaine repeatedly without short-term consequences, you can easily become addicted. Cocaine addiction can have substantial medical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Not everyone addicted to cocaine will have these issues, but many will. Far from a benign recreational drug, using too much cocaine or too frequently can cause:

Heart Problems

Cocaine interferes with the heart’s ability to beat correctly by preventing it from receiving vital substances such as calcium, sodium, and potassium. Using too much cocaine can cause heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias), leading to tachycardia (heart rate over 100 beats per minute) as well as myocardial infarction.

Delusions and Hallucinations

Cocaine users can experience delusions and hallucinations. In one study, people who took cocaine experienced visual hallucinations like shadows, blinking lights, moving objects, and the feeling of bugs crawling over their bodies.

Hypothermia

Taking too much cocaine puts you at risk of hyperthermia, an elevation in body temperature. This is especially risky on days when the weather is hot.

Organ Damage

How you consume cocaine changes the potential risk. Snorting powdered cocaine degrades nose cartilage because it leaves a residue of hydrochloric acid in the nasal cavity. Cocaine can also cause permanent damage to the nose’s olfactory nerves, leading to a diminished sense of smell. People who choose to smoke crack cocaine risk coughing up blood and causing lung damage. Cocaine users have an increased risk of developing glaucoma, which is caused by a build-up in pressure in the eye. A good indication of this damage is pupil dilation, which can last for several weeks after cocaine use ends. This powerful stimulant has also been shown to cause kidney damage and renal disease.

Fetal Abnormalities

Cocaine can be responsible for fetal abnormalities, including lack of weight gain, spontaneous abortion, premature labor, and congenital disabilities.

Death

Cocaine usage can result in sudden death through cardiac arrest or convulsions. The drug can also permanently damage arteries in the brain.

How to Get Help For Cocaine Abuse

Left untreated, there are serious long-term consequences of cocaine use, some of which may not be reversible. The first step toward overcoming a substance use disorder such as cocaine addiction is to be open to the possibility that you have a problem and to decide that you want to change.

When people stop using cocaine, they almost immediately experience extreme cravings for more of the drug. They may experience fatigue, anxiety, agitation, or even paranoia.

Often, cocaine withdrawal doesn’t have any obvious physical symptoms. When someone withdraws from heroin or alcohol, they may experience vomiting or shakiness. Cocaine withdrawal can feel more like a bad flu, while the symptoms are primarily psychological. How severe the withdrawal experience is depends on how long the user has been on cocaine and how much they have taken.

Depending on how long someone has been using, there are many different options for treatment. Some people will benefit from residential inpatient treatment. A day program or  intensive outpatient program might be a better fit for other people. A support group like Cocaine Anonymous can also help people stay on track to sobriety.

An accredited addiction treatment program will provide you with evidence-based interventions, including counseling and medication, like we do at Lake Avenue Recovery.

Remember, you don’t have to try to break your addiction to cocaine by yourself. There are options available, and an addiction treatment professional can guide you in the right direction.

At Lake Avenue Recovery, we want to help you find your way back to living a healthy life free from substance dependency. If you are looking for cocaine addiction treatment in Massachusetts, we can help. Please reach out today.

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