Cocaine is one of the most widely abused drugs in the United States and around the world. Although cocaine abuse is only a relatively recent phenomenon, with a surge beginning in the 1970s in the United States, its use has a number of negative impacts on individuals, families, and communities. In this article, we’ll explore some of the side effects of cocaine abuse. Many people that have a loved one using cocaine, or if they themselves have used cocaine, wonder “what are the side effects of cocaine abuse?” In order to shed light on the harmful effects of cocaine abuse, and some of the side effects of crack cocaine abuse, we’ll look at the short and long term effects of cocaine use. Cocaine use has deleterious effects on both the mental and physical state of the user. Some of these effects manifest quickly, while others are more common in extended use. Taken together, cocaine use results in substantial changes to the emotional and physical state of the user, and some of these changes can persist for months after the use of cocaine has been stopped. While cocaine use has many negative impacts on the life of the individual using it and the people close to them, the good news is that cocaine dependence and abuse can be treated. A variety of cocaine abuse treatment options can be employed to assist individuals that are struggling with a cocaine addiction and have a desire to achieve sobriety. Overcoming an addiction to cocaine isn’t easy, yet it is entirely possible with the right treatment plan in place. Avoiding many of the side effects that we will go over in this article requires identifying cocaine abuse early and getting treatment as soon as possible. The longer cocaine abuse continues, the greater the impact will be on the mental and physical health of the user.
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is an alkaloid found in the leaves of the coca plant. Originating in South America, coca plants have been cultivated and used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. In the pre-conquest era, the use of coca leaves was relegated to individuals of high standing such as religious figures and warriors. Following the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, the use of coca leaves became more widespread. The leaves of the coca plant were often chewed to gain the stimulant properties of the cocaine contained in the leaves. Chewing of coca leaves enhances alertness, minimizes the effects of high altitude, staves off hunger, and improves productivity. Cocaine, as we know it today, is a powder that is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant through an extensive process. After refining, the end product is a stimulant that interacts powerfully with the central nervous system of the user. There are two forms of cocaine that are sold today. One form is a powder, while the other is a crystalline structure that is solid. Since we will be exploring the side effects of both of these forms of cocaine simultaneously, it is useful to get a sense of the differences between the two.
- Powder Cocaine – Cocaine in a powder form is a salt once it has been refined. This fact allows the drug to pass through the mucous membranes in the body, leading to quick entry of the drug into the body. Powder cocaine is most commonly insufflated, or snorted, through the nose. Powder cocaine is also sometimes injected, usually along with heroin, which is known as a “speedball”.
- Freebase Cocaine – Freebase cocaine is commonly referred to as “crack cocaine”. Crack cocaine saw a surge in use during the early 1980s and eventually became the face of the War on Drugs that started during the Reagan administration. Crack cocaine is smoked and has a more powerful effect than powder cocaine and a faster onset of these effects. The “high” associated with smoking crack is more powerful but shorter, requiring users to use the drug more frequently to maintain the effects.
Along with the types of cocaine that are commonly seen, the effects of cocaine should also be noted. Individuals who abuse cocaine do so because of the stimulant properties of the drug along with the feelings of euphoria that accompany it. Cocaine interacts with the body’s reward pathways, producing feelings of euphoria that can quickly lead to addiction. Abuse of cocaine quickly leads to a physical tolerance for the drug, which requires the user to consume more of the drug each time to achieve the same effect.
Short-term Side Effects of Cocaine Abuse
We have a basic understanding of what cocaine is at this point, including the fact that it is a fast-acting stimulant that comes in both powder and crystalline form. Now let’s explore some of the side effects of cocaine abuse itself. Cocaine abuse leads to deleterious effects both in the short term and through extended usage. We’ll differentiate these effects by whether they alter an individual’s physical or mental state, as this serves as a useful method for understanding the complex ways that cocaine use alters an individual’s behavior and physical health.
Physical Short-term Side Effects
- Raised body temperature
- Pupil dilation
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Muscle twitching or spasms
- Abdominal pain
- Heart arrhythmia
- Heart attack
From this list, it is readily apparent that the short-term side effects of cocaine abuse are directly related to the stimulant properties of the drug itself. All users will experience the first entries in the list as the stimulant increases the metabolic activity within the body, raising heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. Serious health complications can arise from cocaine use even in the short-term. Many users may experience a headache, and gastrointestinal problems are also relatively common. Although more uncommon, it is possible to for cocaine use to cause sudden cardiac arrest or dangerous heart arrhythmia. Seizures and heart attacks are the leading causes of death directly associated with cocaine use and can occur as early as the first time the drug is used.
Non-physical Short-term Side Effects
- Panic attacks
- Erratic behavior
- Violent behavior
Although many people associate negative behavioral changes with extended cocaine abuse, the truth is that many of these changes can occur after using cocaine for only a brief period of time. Part of this comes down to how cocaine is used. Typically, powder cocaine is taken in increasingly high doses over a short period of time. This is referred to as a binge, which may take place over the course of a few days. Throughout the course of a binge, individuals can exhibit increasingly erratic or violent behavior and may suffer from paranoia or delusions. Anxiety and restlessness can accompany cocaine use at any time, including the first time it is used. The stimulant properties of the drug itself induce a state of heightened metabolic activity, which are often accompanied by anxiety or increase existing feelings of anxiety or restlessness.
Long-term Side Effects of Cocaine Abuse
When cocaine enters the body it interacts with dopamine transmitters and alters how they function. Dopamine is an integral component of the body’s reward systems. The use of cocaine alters the transmission of dopamine, resulting in a euphoric feeling when the drug is taken. As one might expect, over time the continued use of cocaine begins to reshape how the body’s reward system functions. Not only does prolonged cocaine use affect the body’s systems that produce feelings of pleasure, but it also reshapes how the body experiences stress. Over extended usage, individuals will begin to experience more acute stress. Long-term cocaine abuse causes individuals to be less resilient in stressful situations, to handle stress less than they had before, and the threshold at which stress responses are triggered is lower.
Physical Long-term Side Effects
We’ll start off looking at some of the physiological side effects of long-term cocaine abuse. Some of these are related to the modality of administration, while others are simply the result of long-term exposure to the drug itself.
- Erosion of the nasal passages
- Asthma and lung damage
- Parkinson’s disease
- Chest pain
- Pervasive damage to the heart
- Increased risk-taking behavior (unprotected sex, needle sharing)
- Damage to the gastrointestinal tract
- Weight loss
Nosebleeds and erosion of the nasal passages can be expected in users who snort cocaine over a long period of time. It is not uncommon for these individuals to have a constantly running nose, and very advanced cases can result in damage that requires surgical intervention to rebuild the septum. Asthma and lung damage is associated with smoking crack cocaine. Many users who inject cocaine do so along with heroin, which increases the risk of an overdose while also increasing the risk of contracting communicable diseases if needle sharing occurs. It is notable that long-term cocaine use can result in significant organ damage. The damage that cocaine causes to the cardiac system over time can be extensive and result in continued health issues long after a user has stopped usage of the drug. The development of musculoskeletal disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, has also been linked to long-term cocaine abuse.
Non-physical Long-term Side Effects
The non-physical long-term side effects of cocaine abuse can be as damaging to the user as the physical side effects. It should also be noted that in some cases individuals use drugs, including cocaine, to self-medicate in order to reduce the symptoms of an underlying mental health issue such as anxiety or depression. Long-term cocaine abuse can lead to more powerful instances of anxiety, stress, and depression.
- Lowered inhibitions
- Lack of impulse control
- Decreased motor control
- Decreased attention span or difficulty concentrating
- Panic attacks
Cocaine Abuse and the Lives of Others
While the physical and emotional side effects of cocaine abuse are staggering in their own way, too often we fail to take into account how cocaine abuse impacts the lives of those around the user. There can be no doubt that cocaine abuse has a negative impact on individuals, families, and communities as a whole. Quantifying this impact can be difficult at best. Long-term cocaine abuse often leads to periods of incarceration, which itself introduces a host of complications and long-term effects into the lives of those involved. Parents who abuse cocaine are less likely to provide a nurturing, healthy environment for their children to grow up in. Economic and food security will also be lessened, introducing a higher level of stress into the lives of family members. In many cases, long-term cocaine abuse breaks apart families. Bonds of trust are often damaged. In some cases, cocaine use can lead to physical and emotional abuse of loved ones and family members. Be sure to visit the cocaine detox timeline to learn more about the process of withdrawal.
The damage associated with cocaine abuse is widespread. There are emotional and physiological side effects associated with cocaine abuse no matter how long it has been used. Cocaine use affects the way we experience both pleasure and pain, and these effects are more pronounced over long periods of time. Still, even short-term cocaine use can lead to deleterious physical and mental side-effects, including increased rates of heart attacks, stroke, heightened anxiety, and paranoia. The damage that cocaine causes don’t simply stop with an individual’s body or mind. The effects are far-reaching, and touch the lives of those around the cocaine user as well as the community they live in as a whole. Cocaine abuse has a long history of breaking apart families, whether through incarceration or abandonment due to the drug addiction itself. For individuals who use cocaine, getting the treatment they need as soon as possible is essential to avoiding some of the more serious negative outcomes of long-term cocaine abuse. Loved ones of an individual who is abusing cocaine should encourage them to pursue a treatment program as soon as possible. Although overcoming cocaine addiction and going through cocaine withdrawal can be difficult, with the right treatment program and support system in place it is eminently possible. Take the time today to contact Apex Recovery to learn more about how treatments for cocaine addiction can help you or your loved one achieve lifelong sobriety.
- Yue, Lili, and Xi Chun Fang. Cocaine Abuse : Pharmacology, Treatment and Relapse Prevention. Public Health in the 21st Century. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc, 2012.