The Health Effects of Cocaine Use

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Cocaine

person cutting line of cocaine with razorblade
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Cocaine use causes a wide variety of physical effects. It is an illegal recreational drug with a well-understood set of actions on the body. Cocaine is abused because it produces euphoria, which is described as a feeling of pleasure and an extreme sense of invincibility. It is highly addictive, and often, people who have used cocaine feel extremely depressed and agitated without the drug.

Cocaine users develop a tolerance over time and report that they are never able to achieve the "high" they felt the first time they used the drug. As tolerance to cocaine develops, most users say that the euphoric feeling they get with repeated use is not as intense or as long-lasting as it was with early use, even with escalating doses.

How Cocaine Works

Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that affects the way the brain processes dopamine, a naturally produced neurotransmitter that is associated with regulating pleasure and muscle movement.

Cocaine interferes with the brain's reabsorption (removal) of dopamine, prolonging dopamine's action, which produces a variety of effects. Cocaine works almost immediately, but its effect also causes the body to correct the excessive dopamine by a compensatory decrease in dopamine in the brain. This results in a deficiency of dopamine, and a craving for the effect. Many users deal with this feeling by using more cocaine, which creates a cycle of use and withdrawal.

Short-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

Shortly after using cocaine, it has dramatic effects on the brain and the body. The following consequences occur:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure

During the euphoric period after use of cocaine, which can last up to 30 minutes, users typically feel:

  • Hyperstimulation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • A feeling that you are invincible
  • An inability to comprehend danger
  • Numbing of physical and mental pain
  • Mental alertness

However, many cocaine users also have unpleasant experiences along with the euphoria, including:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • A period of psychosis
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • A disconnection with reality

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

Repeated cocaine use can cause a variety of effects on the body. These effects can happen right after using cocaine, or they can occur even after the medication wears off.

Consequences of long-term cocaine use include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • Chest pain
  • Respiratory failure
  • Stroke
  • Seizures and headaches
  • Abdominal pain and nausea

Effects of Snorting, Injecting, and Smoking Cocaine

There are also differing long-term effects of cocaine, depending on the method of use. Snorting or injecting cocaine can produce specific health effects, including:

  • Snorting: Chronically runny nose, nosebleeds, loss of smell, hoarse voice, and problems swallowing.
  • Injecting: Severe allergic reactions, and increased risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis, heart infections or sepsis (a blood infection).
  • Smoking: Smoking can cause inflammation of the lungs, coughing, and may lead to lung or throat cancer.

Methods of use also have an impact on the effects of cocaine. When cocaine is injected, the euphoric feeling can last from 15 to 30 minutes, but when it is smoked, the high may last only five to 10 minutes, often resulting in repeated use within a short period of time.

Effects of a Cocaine Overdose

Because cocaine affects the heart and respiratory system, an overdose can cause death, especially when you inject or smoke it. An overdose of cocaine can lead to:

  • Irregular heartbeat or heart failure
  • High blood pressure resulting in a brain hemorrhage
  • Repeated convulsions or seizures
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

Statistics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that from 2000 to 2016 there were 10,619 cocaine overdose deaths nationally. Deaths from a combination of cocaine and opioids have more than doubled since 2010, and deaths involving cocaine alone have increased by nine percent.

While cocaine abuse is a well-known problem, the drug can produce such a strong addiction, that users often continue to abuse it even after having suffered serious problems, such as seizures or heart attacks. Often, recovering from drug addiction requires professional treatment, medical supervision, and methods of accountability.

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