Published on March 9th, 2014

Cocaine is a stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. It is powerfully addictive and produces short-term euphoria, energy, and talkativeness. Cocaine has potentially dangerous physical effects such as raising heart rate and blood pressure.

How Is Cocaine Used?

Cocaine in powder form is typically inhaled through the nose (snorted), where it is then absorbed through the nasal tissue. It can also be dissolved in water and injected into the bloodstream.

Cocaine in the form of crack is processed to make a rock crystal, it is also called “freebase cocaine”, which can be smoked. This is done by heating the crystal which produces vapors that are absorbed into the blood-stream through the lungs.

The way cocaine is administered will determine the intensity and duration of cocaine’s pleasurable effects. When injecting or smoking cocaine the drug is delivered rapidly into the bloodstream and brain, which produces a quicker and stronger yet shorter-lasting high than when the drug is snorted. When cocaine is snorted the high may last 15 to 30 minutes while the high from smoking may only last 5 to 10 minutes.

Cocaine is often used in a binge pattern as the individual takes regular doses of the drug over a short period of time and at increasingly high doses in attempts to sustain their high. Binge use of cocaine can easily lead to the individual developing an addiction. When addicted to cocaine the brain is chemically changed as it is a chronic relapsing disease that is characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking no matter the consequences.

How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?

Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that works by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in brain circuits that regulate pleasure and movement.

Dopamine is naturally released by neurons in these circuits as a response to potential rewards such as the smell of good food. They are then recycled back into the cell that initially released it, by doing so it is shutting off the signal between these neurons. When cocaine is used it prevents the dopamine from being recycled, this causes an excessive amount of dopamine to build up in the synapse (junction between neurons). The dopamine signal is then amplified, disrupting normal brain communication. This rush or flood of dopamine is what causes the high associated with cocaine use.

Cocaine can cause long-term changes in the brain’s reward system and other brain systems due to its repeat use, this can ultimately lead to the individual developing an addiction. Prolonged repeat use of cocaine can cause the individual to develop a tolerance, requiring increased doses to achieve the desired effects. Many cocaine users will increase their dose in attempts to intensify and prolong their high, however this greatly increases the risk of adverse psychological or physiological effects.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Cocaine?

Their are many health effects associated with cocaine use. Within seconds of using cocaine the individual may experience constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, and increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Individuals may also experience headaches and gastrointestinal complications such as abdominal pain and nausea. regular cocaine abusers may becomes malnourished as cocaine tends to decrease appetite.

One of cocaine’s most serious health effects is the increased risk of the individual suffering a heart attack or stroke, this could result in sudden death. The most common cocaine related death is a result of cardiac arrest (the heart stopping), which is then followed by respiratory arrest (stopping breathing).

Cocaine use also puts the individual at risk of contracting serious diseases such as HIV. This is possible even if the individual does not share needles or other drug paraphernalia. When high on cocaine the individuals judgement is impaired which could lead to risky sexual behaviors, resulting in an STD.

Regular use of cocaine when snorted can cause the individual to lose their sense of smell, cause chronic nosebleeds, create issues with swallowing, hoarseness, as well as a chronic runny nose. When cocaine is ingested through the mouth the individual is at risk of severe bowel gangrene due to the drug decreasing blood flow. Those who inject cocaine are at risk of severe allegeric reaction, as well as increased risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases.

When using cocaine in a binge pattern that individual may become irritable, restless, and anxious. Many cocaine abusers experience severe paranoia (paranoid psychosis), causing them to lose touch with reality and experience auditory hallucinations.

Cocaine is used in combination with other drugs or alcohol there is a greater risk to the individual, this is known as poly-drug use.

Statistics and Trends

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th-Graders, 10th-Graders, and 12th-Graders; 2013 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th-Graders 10th-Graders 12th-Graders
Cocaine Lifetime 1.70 3.30 4.50
Past Year 1.00 1.90 2.60
Past Month 0.50 0.80 1.10
Crack Cocaine Lifetime 1.20 1.50 1.80
Past Year 0.60 0.80 1.10
Past Month 0.30 0.40 0.60
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