Cocaine Abuse: What It Is, Signs, Effects, and Treatment
What is cocaine?
Cocaine Addiction – Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug that boosts alertness and energy in users. It is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. Cocaine is a white powder that can be inhaled or snorted through the nose, rubbed on the gums, swallowed, or dissolved in water and injected directly into a vein.
Cocaine is an illegal street drug that is also known as ‘blow,’ ‘coke,’ ‘crack’, ‘snow’, or ‘nose candy’. There are two main forms of cocaine: the powdered form (snorted or dissolved and injected) and crack cocaine (usually smoked). The duration and intensity of pleasure produced by cocaine are determined by how it is used. Cocaine is more rapidly absorbed into the blood circulation when smoked or injected, resulting in an instant ‘high’ (which lasts for 5-10 minutes), but snorting causes relatively slower absorption of cocaine, prolonging the pleasure (which lasts about 15-30 minutes).1
How cocaine works
Dopamine (a chemical in the brain) is associated with pleasure and satisfaction. The release of dopamine in the brain causes euphoria (a feeling of pleasure). Cocaine blocks the dopamine transporters in the brain, prolonging the availability of dopamine and therefore causing euphoria (dopamine transporters reduce the levels of dopamine in the brain).2
Why people use cocaine
People use cocaine to feel a euphoric high. Users react differently to cocaine. Some users report feeling more energized, sociable, and confident, while others report feeling anxious and tense. The desired high phase is followed by a ‘crash’ where people feel depressed and suicidal.
Spread of cocaine abuse in the U.S.
Recreational cocaine usage is more common among the young population. In the year 2020, 489,000 people aged 12 and above used cocaine; the proportion was highest among young adults aged 18 to 25 years (1.4 million people).3 Furthermore, the number of cocaine-related overdose deaths has increased from 5,419 in 2014 to 19,447 in 2020.4 These numbers show the impact of cocaine addiction on the U.S. population.
Given the devastating consequences of cocaine addiction, it is important that loved ones be protected from drug exposure. The first step in this process is to recognize the signs of cocaine use.
Recognising a cocaine habit
The signs of cocaine abuse and addiction vary among users. The symptoms and their intensity are determined by the duration and frequency of cocaine use, the amount of drug used, the method of administration, and the purity of the cocaine used.
Physical and mental symptoms of cocaine abuse can be recognized by loved ones or friends. Drug use is sometimes indicated by the presence of drug paraphernalia, which includes everything used in the production, processing, preparation, or administration of illegal drugs.
The following psychological symptoms of cocaine use may be used to recognize drug abuse:
- Impaired decision-making
- Poor memory
Physical effects of cocaine addiction include:
- A whitish powdery film at the bridge of the nose (‘sugar spots’)
- Dilated pupils
- Bloodshot eyes (red eyes)
- Rapid heart rate
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
- Heart attack
The dangers of cocaine abuse
Cocaine abuse can have short-term as well as long-term effects on users.
1) Short-term effects of cocaine abuse
Cocaine is a short-acting drug. Its use causes the narrowing of blood vessels, leading to increased blood pressure, rapid increases in core body temperature, and a faster heart rate. Due to the short-lasting effect, people may use large amounts of cocaine to intensify the euphoria, but it can also cause side effects like violent behaviour, restlessness, paranoia, anxiety, and panic. Users may also experience tremors (uncontrolled shaking) and muscle twitches.5
Cocaine abuse also affects the heart, causing arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) and heart attacks; the brain (seizures, strokes, coma, and headaches); and the gut (nausea and stomach pain).6
Many cocaine users also use alcohol and other drugs, which is a risky combination that can lead to death.
2) Long-term effects of cocaine abuse
Frequent cocaine use leads to tolerance (the body’s reduced response to a drug). Tolerance increases the amount of cocaine required to get the euphoric effect.7 Furthermore, the brain mechanisms involved in stress become more sensitive, resulting in the onset of cocaine withdrawal symptoms. This combined effect leads to an increase in cocaine consumption.
Long-term and frequent cocaine use can damage vital body organs. For example, it reduces blood flow to the gut, leading to tears and ulcerations. Many cocaine addicts experience a loss of hunger and weight loss.
What causes cocaine addiction?
Multiple factors are responsible for developing an addiction to cocaine in users.
Genetics is an important risk factor for drug addiction. Individuals with drug-addicted siblings or relatives are 4.4 times more likely to develop a cocaine addiction.8
Some people with unique physical conditions like ‘dopamine deficiency syndrome’ have low dopamine levels in the brain. Overall, there is insufficient dopamine activity in the pleasure and reward areas of the brain. This deficiency encourages people to participate in activities that boost brain dopamine function, such as cocaine use.9
People who grow up in a home where their parents or siblings take drugs may see drugs like cocaine as a typical way to cope with life’s stresses. Furthermore, the environment in schools, communities, and workplaces may influence people’s choice to use cocaine.
Risk factors that may increase a person’s likelihood of becoming a drug addict are:
- Peer influence
- Easy access to drugs
- Being lonely
- Inadequate parental oversight
- Presence of mental health conditions like depression and dopamine deficiency syndrome
How to overcome cocaine abuse
Addiction to cocaine is not a simple process; it involves changes in the brain as well as influences from someone’s social and family life. As a result, cocaine addiction treatment must address this broad context as well as any co-occurring mental issues that demand further behavioural or medicinal treatments.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized any drugs to treat cocaine addiction, although scientists are looking at several potential neurological targets. While much of the prior research has emphasized dopamine, recent studies have shown that cocaine use also causes changes in the brain that are associated with other chemicals. Those new chemicals are being explored by scientists to come up with a potential treatment strategy for cocaine addiction.
An experimental vaccine against cocaine use has been created and tested in humans. The vaccine works by triggering the body to produce antibodies that attach to cocaine and block its entry into the brain.10 A clinical trial demonstrated the vaccine’s safety and showed that individuals who achieved high antibody levels massively reduced their cocaine use.11
In many cases, behavioural therapies are the only effective option for addressing drug abuse, including cocaine addiction. However, it is likely that the most successful method will be one that combines behavioural therapy with drug therapy.
Contingency management (CM)
CM, also known as motivational incentives, is a method of behavioural treatment that has shown promising outcomes in treating individuals with cocaine addiction. Patients who participate in these programs and avoid using cocaine and other drugs are rewarded with prizes.12
Behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT and other therapies help people learn the skills they will need to remain sober for the long term, such as how to identify and avoid situations where they will be tempted to use cocaine and how to deal with the stresses that come with quitting. This approach can also be used with other therapies to maximize their effectiveness.
Community-based rehabilitation organizations that employ a 12-step structure, such as Cocaine Anonymous, can also help people stay cocaine-free.
On the road to cocaine addiction recovery
Quitting drug use is only the first step in a long and difficult rehabilitation journey. By the time people start with treatment for drug use, addiction has usually already caused a great deal of damage in their lives. The harm might appear as poor health, an economic burden, or how they function in their family life, workplaces, and society.
On the road to addiction recovery, a slip, or even a full-fledged relapse (resuming the drug abuse after an attempt to stop), is not unusual. Relapse rates for those in recovery from cocaine addiction range between 40-60%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).13
Relapse is not a failure. It can help to improve coping abilities and the desire to find long-term recovery. Loved ones and friends play an important role in relapse. Those in recovery need to hear that they are not alone and that they are not likely to be the last to experience a relapse.
Completing the recovery program is a significant accomplishment that should be celebrated. However, this is only the first step in a lifelong journey without cocaine. Patients who complete a recovery program may need to re-adjust to their new lifestyles and make new friends. People recovering from cocaine addiction can take control of their future by living a sober life with the support of family and friends.