A powerfully addictive stimulant, cocaine comes in several forms, including a fine, white powder or a solid rock crystal referred to as crack. Cocaine may also be called coke or blow. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cocaine was the cause of nearly 1 in 5 overdose deaths in 2017, and almost 5 million Americans, or about 2% of the population, reported using the drug in 2016.
How Cocaine Affects the Brain
Users snort the powder form of the drug into the nose, rub it into the gums or dissolved it in water and inject it intravenously. Crack users heat the rock and inhale the resulting smoke into the lungs.
Regardless of the way cocaine enters the body, the drug has an immediate effect on the brain.
Cocaine first affects the brain by raising the level of dopamine. A natural chemical messenger, dopamine sends messages to the brain circuits that control movement and reward. Cocaine increases the level of dopamine to a point that people feel intense energy and alertness, also known as a high. While the body normally recycles dopamine back into the cell that it came from, cocaine prevents this from happening. When dopamine isn’t recycled, the signal between the nerve cells isn’t shut off, causing the dopamine to build up between the nerve cells and cutting off their communication. This contributes to the intensity of the cocaine high.
Over time, the brain’s reward circuit adapts to this dopamine buildup and begins to require more cocaine to achieve the same effect and to stop withdrawal symptoms. This causes people to take a higher amount of cocaine at more frequent intervals.
Short and Long Term Effects of Cocaine
There are both short and long-term effects of cocaine. The short-term effects include:
- extreme happiness and energy
- mental alertness
- hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch
- extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
Physically, cocaine causes a range of side effects that include:
- constricted blood vessels
- dilated pupils
- elevated body temperature and blood pressure
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- tremors and muscle twitches
The long-term physical effects of cocaine will vary depending on how users consume the drug. These range from a loss of smell and nosebleeds when cocaine is snorted to cough and other respiratory distress when the drug is smoked. Those who take cocaine via needle injection are at a higher risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases. They also risk infections and collapsed veins. Those who consume cocaine by the mouth can suffer from severe bowel decay due to reduced blood flow to the intestines.
Finally, cocaine poses a very high risk of overdose, whether on purpose or by accident. An overdose can happen the first time someone tries cocaine or after repeated use. Mixing cocaine with alcohol or other drugs is common and very deadly. Symptoms of a cocaine overdose include:
- irregular heart rhythm
- heart attack
- difficulty breathing
- high blood pressure
- high body temperature
- extreme agitation or anxiety
Treatment of a cocaine overdose often focuses on restoring blood flow to the heart from a heart attack, restoring oxygen-rich blood supply to the affected part of the brain after a stroke, or stopping a seizure.
Unlike opioid overdoses which can be reversed with a drug like naloxone, there is no specific medication that can reverse a cocaine overdose. As a result, cocaine use can be fatal if medical personnel are unable to treat the medical complications that result from the overdose.
At Bridges of Hope, we take a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. Utilizing therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices, Bridges of Hope provides superior patient care in Indiana through all-inclusive treatment services.