The Power of Cocaine

Cocaine is a highly-addictive and powerful stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant found in South America. Cocaine usually appears in the form of small white chunks that can be crushed into powder and snorted, smoked, or dissolved in liquid and injected.

Using cocaine leads to feelings of euphoria, increased energy, feelings of confidence, mental alertness, and sexual arousal. Directly after the “high” caused by cocaine use, some people feel restless, anxious, irritable, and unable to sleep. These negative effects can become more intense after repeated use, leading to a binge cycle of use.

Who’s Using Cocaine?

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1.5 million people in the U.S. used cocaine at some point in 2014. People aged 18-25 years are the most likely to use cocaine, and men are more likely to abuse this drug than women. Cocaine accounts for one-in-four emergency room visits related to drug use, making it one of the most likely drugs to lead to a medical emergency.

Increased Odds of Abuse?
While addiction involving cocaine isn’t restricted to certain ages or demographics, some characteristics increase the likelihood of developing an addiction involving cocaine. Mayo Clinic lists the following risk factors for drug addiction:

  • Family history of addiction – People who have a first-degree relative, such a parent or sibling, who suffers from addiction are more likely to have addiction issues themselves.
  • Being male – Men are more likely to become addicted to drugs than women, and oftentimes, men have higher rates of substance abuse than women.
  • Mental health disorder – Some people with mental health disorders try to self-medicate with illicit substances, which can lead to addiction. Oftentimes, mental health issues co-occur with substance abuse issues, with each disorder intensifying the effects of the other.
  • Peer pressure – Having friends who use drugs can be a strong factor in the development of addiction. Likewise, growing up in an environment where substance use is common makes it more likely that a person will abuse substances.
  • Poor family relationships – Lack of a strong bond between parents and children can lead to drug use, as well as a lack of overall social support in life.
  • Using other substances – Using other highly-addictive drugs such as heroin increase the incidence of addiction involving cocaine.

Why People Use Cocaine

According to Addiction Science & Clinical Perspectives, cocaine affects the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls pleasure and motivation.

Euphoric Effects
Cocaine increases levels of dopamine, causing feelings of euphoria. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this increase in dopamine is what makes cocaine and similar drugs so addictive. Repeated exposure to cocaine causes the brain to become less sensitive to naturally occurring levels of dopamine. As a result, people are eventually unable to feel pleasure without the presence of cocaine.

Stimulant Effects
In the early stages of cocaine use, along with an overall feeling of euphoria, individuals like the immediate effects of snorting or shooting up cocaine. Physical changes include increased energy, confidence, enhanced sex drive, and increased mental alertness. When the cocaine user begins to come down from the high, the sensations are different and can be unpleasant including insomnia, agitation, and restlessness.

What Happens When Cocaine Enters the Body?

The effects of cocaine can last for varying lengths of time, depending on the route of administration. Snorting cocaine is the most common method of taking in the drug, and its effects last 15-30 minutes when taken in this manner. Smoking the drug causes it to take effect almost immediately, but its effects will wear off more quickly, in about 5-10 minutes.

Short-term Physical Changes of cocaine include:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increase heart rate and blood pressure
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Tremors
  • Vertigo
  • Muscle twitches

Complications of Cocaine Use
Complications can occur when abusing this drug, including heart attack, stroke, and seizure. Some individuals experience headaches, coma, abdominal pain, and nausea.

Physical Effects & Dangers
Long-term effects of cocaine use can include addiction, physical dependence, and increased tolerance to the drug’s effects. Cocaine is highly-addictive, and relapse is common, even after years of recovery. Cocaine changes the structure and chemistry of the brain. Over time, the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that cocaine releases within the brain. Individuals who frequently use cocaine find they need to use higher and higher doses of the drug to feel the same effects. Repeated use drastically increases the risk of addiction.

Physical Damage
Other long-term effects of cocaine use include:

  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Nosebleeds
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Bowel gangrene
  • Track marks or scars at injection sites
  • Weight loss, malnourishment

Danger of Mixing Cocaine with Other Drugs
Combining cocaine with other substances, particularly alcohol, in an effort to intensify the “high” of cocaine and be able to drink more alcohol. Combining substances compounds the effects of each substance as well as the risks. Overdose is more likely when cocaine is combined with other substances of abuse.

Cocaine Withdrawal

If an individual has become physically or psychologically dependent and the body requires cocaine to function, then withdrawal will occur with decreased usage or abruptly stopping. Withdrawal from cocaine typically involves fewer physical symptoms, such as shaking and sweating, than what is seen in withdrawal from other drugs like heroin or alcohol. However, cocaine withdrawal can be unpleasant, and may last longer than withdrawal from other substances due to a psychological dependence on the drug.

When You Stop Using Cocaine
Temporary Symptoms of cocaine withdrawal include:

  • Agitation, restlessness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of discomfort
  • Increased appetite
  • Vivid, unpleasant dreams
  • Slowed movement, activity
  • Strong cravings

Medical Supervision
Most symptoms of withdrawal subside after a few days or weeks. However, symptoms like cravings and depression can last for months. Some people experience suicidal thoughts during the withdrawal process. As a result, medical supervision is recommended.

Treating Cocaine Addiction

Combined (Integrated) Treatment
Individuals who are addicted to cocaine are usually addicted to other substances as well. Because of this, it is important that treatment addresses not only the cocaine addiction, but all co-occurring disorders, including addictions to other substances as well as other mental health disorders.

There are currently no medications approved by the FDA to treat cocaine addiction. Many different medications are being explored as possible treatments for addiction to stimulants, including disulfiram, a drug used to treat alcoholism. Behavioral therapy is currently the preferred treatment method for cocaine addiction.

Treatment for Addiction Involving Cocaine
According to NIDA, many different types of therapy can be effective in treating addiction. The therapy method that works best depends on individual circumstances and needs. Effective treatment takes all of an individual’s needs into account, and addresses the person’s physical, emotional, and social circumstances.

One of the most commonly used methods in cocaine addiction treatment is Contingency Management. This type of therapy offers rewards like vouchers or increased privileges when goals are met, such as when sobriety is maintained for a certain length of time or when the individual actively participates in the therapy process. This type of therapy is used frequently in inpatient or residential programs. These programs usually last several months, providing a solid basis for long-term recovery. With residential treatment, clients live at the treatment facility full-time, allowing them to receive 24-hour supervision and care.

Other methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Family Therapy may also be used for cocaine addiction treatment. The goal of therapy is to provide clients with new ways of thinking and behaving, so they are better equipped to deal with stressors and can avoid relapse. Attending self-help, 12-step, and support groups has been found to be assist in long-term recovery and is a component for recovery aftercare plans.

Recovery Outlook

Cocaine addiction can be devastating to virtually every area of an individual’s life but recovery is possible. Addiction often leads a person to make choices that are detrimental to personal, family, and loved ones wellbeing. Thankfully, full recovery is possible with proper treatment and ongoing support.