What Is a Cocaine Overdose?

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What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine

Cocaine is a compound extracted from the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca shrub, native to South America, where Indigenous communities used to drink coca tea or chew coca leaves for their energizing and stimulating benefits.

Consuming cocaine triggers the release of a chemical called dopamine in the brain, causing a high characterized by euphoria, alertness, excitement, and frenzied energy. This high can be addictive, causing cravings for more and more of the drug.

While cocaine can legally be used for medical purposes, such as local anesthesia, it is illegal to use it recreationally. Nevertheless, a 2022 study notes that approximately 24.6 million people around the world use cocaine.

Cocaine, also known as coke, coca, snow, blow, and flake, is snorted through the nostrils, rubbed into the gums, injected into the veins, or smoked via a pipe or cigarette.

Using cocaine can be dangerous, as it can cause severe issues including a heart attack, stroke, and overdose.

This article explores the causes, symptoms, effects, diagnosis, and treatment of cocaine overdose.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is a Cocaine Overdose?

Cocaine Overdose

A cocaine overdose can occur when someone consumes enough cocaine to cause serious side effects, life-threatening symptoms, or death.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 19,000 people died of cocaine overdose in 2020. In fact, the number of deaths due to cocaine overdose has been increasing significantly every year.

It’s important to note that death due to a cocaine overdose can occur unexpectedly at any time, including upon someone's first instance of using cocaine, or at any time thereafter.

Causes of a Cocaine Overdose

A cocaine overdose can occur if someone:

  • Takes too much cocaine in one go
  • Takes an overly concentrated form of cocaine 
  • Does cocaine whilst drinking alcohol
  • Mixes cocaine with other drugs, such as heroin
  • Consumes an adulterated form of cocaine that contains other drugs, such as amphetamines or fentanyl—this is considered the most common cause of overdose, and the reason why the number of deaths related to cocaine overdose have spiked
  • Uses cocaine in warm weather, as dehydration can worsen the side effects of the drug

Symptoms of a Cocaine Overdose

These are some of the symptoms of cocaine overdose:

  • Fast or labored breathing
  • Rapid, rambling speech
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Confusion and restlessness
  • Lack of awareness of surroundings
  • Muscle tremors, particularly in the hands and face
  • Dilated pupils that don’t shrink even when a light is shined into them
  • Rapid or irregular heart rate 
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Paleness or blue-tinted skin
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Bladder incontinence 
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures 

Effects of a Cocaine Overdose

A cocaine overdose can affect several organs in the body, which can cause permanent damage and result in:

  • Stroke, seizures, or paralysis
  • Severe mental health conditions, such as chronic anxiety, depression, or psychosis
  • Reduced cognitive function 
  • Heart attack, sudden cardiac death, reduced heart function, or other heart irregularities
  • Kidney damage or kidney failure, which may require dialysis
  • Muscle breakdown, which may require amputation

Diagnosing a Cocaine Overdose

A cocaine overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical care. If you suspect you or a loved one may be experiencing a cocaine overdose, call 911 right away.

Healthcare providers may perform the following tests to diagnose cocaine overdose and determine whether any organs have been affected:

  • Vital signs, including pulse, temperature, breathing rate, and blood pressure
  • Cardiac enzymes, to check for a heart attack or other heart damage
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG), to measure the heart’s electrical activity
  • Chest x-ray, to check for lung damage
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan of the head, in case a head injury or internal bleeding is suspected
  • Toxicology screen, to check for drugs and other substances
  • Urinalysis, to check for drugs and other substances

Treating a Cocaine Overdose

Treating a cocaine overdose involves managing the symptoms and treating them as required. However, it’s important to note that there is no medication that can specifically treat or reverse a cocaine overdose.

Treatment for a cocaine overdose can involve:

  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Injecting fluids intravenously
  • Providing breathing support, which may involve inhaling oxygen through a face mask, a tube inserted down the throat, or a ventilator
  • Restoring blood flow to the heart, in case of a heart attack
  • Restoring blood flow to the brain, in case of a stroke
  • Stopping and preventing seizures
  • Prescribing medication for symptoms such as nausea, pain, high blood pressure, anxiety, or agitation
  • Treating other complications such as muscle or kidney damage

If the person survives the cocaine overdose, it’s important to help them get the treatment they need for substance addiction.

Treatment may involve:

  • Detoxification: A period where the remnants of the drug are flushed out of the body. The detox process may need to be undertaken at a hospital or recovery facility as the person may experience withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, headaches, fatigue, depression, slow thinking, insomnia, and nightmares.
  • Counseling: Once the physical symptoms of withdrawal subside, the person can begin counseling. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help the person understand why they were using cocaine, identify the impact of the cocaine use on their life, and learn coping strategies to help them avoid the substance. Contingency management is another therapeutic approach that rewards people for staying drug-free.
  • 12-step programs: Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Cocaine Anonymous (CA) are community-based recovery programs that take a 12-step approach to recovery. Members of the group help each other recover by sharing experiences, confiding in each other, and offering support and advice.

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you know uses cocaine, it’s important to recognize the addiction and seek treatment for it as soon as possible. Cocaine is an addictive drug that can cause a fatal overdose at any time. Alternatively, it can result in permanent damage or cause long-term health effects.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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