Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Cocaine Abuse

Cocaine, also known as coke, blow, crack, and rock, is an extremely addictive stimulant that comes from the leaves of the coca plant. This illegal substance can be found in two forms: powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. In its purest form, cocaine is a white powdered substance; however, on the streets it is usually cut with fillers such as lactose or baking powder. Sometimes powdered cocaine is cut with other stimulants such as methamphetamines or narcotics such as heroin. Since powdered cocaine can be mixed with a number of different things, it is almost impossible to determine its purity and strength per dose, which leads to higher risk of overdose and death. Crack cocaine, on the other hand is a lower purity form of this drug and comes in a rock-like crystal, hence the name “crack rock.”

Both forms of cocaine can be abused in a variety of ways; crack cocaine is usually smoked, while powdered cocaine can be snorted or dissolved and injected. The route of administration affects the duration and intensity of the pleasurable effects produced by coke. Smoking or injecting the drug causes a faster delivery into the bloodstream, allowing coke to quickly cross the blood-brain barrier, but leading to a shorter lasting high. Snorting cocaine crosses the blood-brain barrier more slowly, prolonging the high.

As a central nervous system stimulant, cocaine increases the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain by preventing dopamine reuptake in the neurons. This causes excessive amounts of dopamine to build up in the synapses between neurons, resulting in the associated high. With repeated use, cocaine changes the reward system of the brain, leading to tolerance, addiction, and dependence.

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Statistics

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) has estimated that in 2009, there were 1.9 million current cocaine users, of which about 359,000 were crack cocaine users. Adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have higher rates of cocaine usage, with 1.5% of those within that age range reporting past-month cocaine usage. Men overall have higher rates of cocaine abuse than women.

Causes of Cocaine Addiction

Most researchers agree that addiction to any substance like cocaine is the result of the combination of genetic background and environmental risk factors working together that increase the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction to cocaine. The causes and risk factors for cocaine abuse may include:

Genetics: Individuals who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, who has an addiction to cocaine or other substances are at a higher risk for developing an addiction themselves. While this is not a definitive indicator, genetics are believed to play a major role in addiction.

Physical: Research has indicated that prolonged cocaine use causes changes in genes that leads to altered levels of a specific brain protein that is responsible for regulating the action of the brain chemical dopamine, which is associated with the cocaine’s pleasurable rush. Additionally, it has been hypothesized that some individuals are born with temperamental qualities that predispose them to develop an addiction to stimulants.

Environmental: People who are born into families in which addiction and drug abuse is acceptable and prevalent may grow up to believe that using drugs such as cocaine is a normal way to cope with stressors of the world. Additionally, people who begin to experiment with drugs during their young teens are at a greater risk for developing addiction later in life.

Risk Factors: Some additional factors can increase a person’s chance at developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol. These factors include:

  • Early aggressive behaviors
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Availability of drug
  • Poverty
  • Being male
  • Presence of certain mental illnesses – ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder
  • Loneliness
  • High stress

Symptoms of Cocaine Abuse

The symptoms of cocaine abuse and addiction are different from person to person and depend upon genetic makeup, length of addiction, amount used, and the presence of other drugs in the body. The most common symptoms of cocaine abuse include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Extreme energy
  • Engaging in illegal activities
  • Speaking very quickly
  • Excited, exuberant speech
  • Conversation jumping around to multiple topics
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Physical Symptoms:

  • Tolerance
  • Physical addiction
  • Seizures
  • Racing heart
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Hypertension
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating
  • Increased libido
  • Sudden cardiac death

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Extreme focus and concentration on one task
  • Increased alertness
  • Increased feelings of competence
  • Psychosis

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Feeling of supremacy
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Psychological addiction
  • Euphoria and feelings of wellbeing
  • Mood swings

Effects of Cocaine Abuse

After prolonged abuse, cocaine can cause a number of severe symptoms and long-term effects that will negatively impact the user’s life. These effects will vary based upon individual genetic makeup, route of administration, length of abuse, and frequency of use.

  • Lower work ethic and loss of job
  • Permanent damage to blood vessels, heart, and brain
  • Destruction of nose tissue
  • Respiratory failure
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Liver, kidney, and lung damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Infectious diseases
  • Abscesses
  • Financial difficulties
  • Legal problems
  • Incarceration
  • Malnutrition and weight loss
  • Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Tooth decay
  • Auditory and tactile hallucinations
  • Sexual problems, reproductive damage, or infertility
  • Severe depression
  • Delirium or psychosis
  • Tolerance and depression
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Death
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Cocaine Withdrawal:

If a person who has become addicted to cocaine suddenly stops using the drug, withdrawal symptoms will set in quickly. While withdrawing from cocaine is not life-threatening, it is accompanied by a number of unpleasant side effects. It is always best to seek professional help when going through cocaine withdrawal so that you can be supervised by a trained medical professional who can help prevent complications.

Some of the effects of withdrawal from cocaine may include:

  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Depression
  • Extreme cravings
  • Anhedonia
  • Increased appetite
  • Vivid and unpleasant dreams
  • Decrease in activity levels
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue and sleepiness
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia

Effects of Cocaine Overdose:

Cocaine overdose is a serious medical emergency as it can be fatal. Anyone suspected of suffering an overdose should be seen by medical professionals immediately. While overdose on cocaine can occur through any method, it is more likely to occur when an individual injects because the drug enters the body at a quicker speed, increasing the risk for overdose.

Common symptoms of a cocaine overdose include:

  • Angina
  • Seizures
  • Delirium
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular breathing
  • Hyperthermia
  • Tachycardia
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

A number of mental health and related disorders have been linked to abuse and addiction to cocaine. These include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcoholism
  • Other addictions
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