People who decide to stop using a drug like cocaine are often motivated by the consequences of drug use, including legal troubles, financial strain, and health problems. With cocaine, health-related consequences can be severe and even deadly, especially with long-term abuse of the drug.

If you have become addicted to cocaine, it may be difficult to imagine giving it up and living life without it. Learning about the health-related problems that come with ongoing cocaine use may drive you to seek treatment and begin your journey toward recovery.

Cocaine’s Mental Health Effects

Infographic with the mental health effects of long-term cocaine use

When cocaine enters the brain and bloodstream, it triggers a series of chemical reactions that create a sense of euphoria. The circuits that normally regulate feelings of pleasure are overloaded, and the signals they normally send are amplified.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term cocaine abuse can cause some of those circuits to “burn out” and become significantly less effective. Cocaine causes a rush of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, but over time, the body becomes tolerant to cocaine and requires more and more of the drug to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. 

With ongoing cocaine use, the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine, and if a person stops using or does not use a high enough dose, he or she may experience negative mental health effects, such as depression. In addition, repeated cocaine abuse may lead to psychosis symptoms, such as experiencing hallucinations or extreme paranoia. 

Cocaine’s Physical Effects

Infographic showing the physical effects of cocaine use

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine can have a variety of negative health effects over the long term. Health risks among cocaine users can include:

Research has described the potential physical health consequences of cocaine in more detail.

An Aging Brain:

Cocaine’s brain impacts don’t end with depression and paranoia. The drug can also impact the very structure of the brain, mimicking the natural processes the brain goes through with advancing age.

Most people lose a type of tissue in the brain known as grey matter as they age. The loss of this kind of tissue could be responsible for many of the mental changes commonly associated with age, including confusion and short-term memory loss.

In a study at Cambridge, researchers found that those who abused cocaine lost grey matter at a rate that was twice the amount seen in healthy people who didn’t use the drug. That could mean people with long-term cocaine use could struggle with cognitive tasks much earlier in life than they should. As a result, working, raising children, or handling the hassles of everyday life could become challenging.

Blood Vessel Damage:

While changes in the brain might be easy to detect, some types of cocaine-related damage can remain hidden from view, tucked away deep within the body’s vital organs and necessary circuitry. Many of those changes have to do with the cardiovascular system.

The body’s network of blood vessels, all supplied with fluid by the action of the heart, keeps cells nourished with the elements and fluid they need to survive. Each heartbeat also helps to whisk away byproducts, so the cells can dispose of the things they don’t need to stay functional. Cocaine can upend this process. According to research, even among healthy young adults, low doses of the drug can constrict blood vessels.

The heart might still be beating at a normal rate, but it’s working against a great deal of resistance. This means that blood could begin to pool within the body, which could lead to clots. Or, it could mean that cells can’t get the nutrients they need, and they can’t dispose of the waste they don’t need. As a result, cells begin to die.

Sometimes these problems come with pain. Someone using the drug might feel a twinge in the chest or a feeling of pins in their fingertips, but sometimes the damage occurs without any pain at all.

Body Temperature Changes:

In the 1990s, research involving rats and cocaine, looked for evidence of the damage cocaine can do. Their findings indicated that cocaine could result in major damage to the body, putting the user’s life at risk. For example, in one study published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, researchers gave rats a dose of cocaine and placed them on a treadmill. Other rats went on a treadmill without cocaine in their system. At the end of an exercise session, researchers found that the body temperature of the rats on cocaine was much higher than that of the other rats.

While people might not use a treadmill while they’re high, they might engage in other strenuous activities. These activities could result in a significant spike in body temperature, leading to health complications.

Gastrointestinal Upset:

Another hidden problem involving cocaine abuse concerns the gastrointestinal tract. This system helps the body pull nutrients from food and expel anything that the body doesn’t require for ideal maintenance. It’s a very sophisticated system, and it’s deeply dependent on blood flow.

Since cocaine disturbs the cardiovascular system, it also has a ripple effect in the gut. The digestive system doesn’t have the blood flow it needs to stay healthy, and the organs begin to break down. According to an article in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, it’s not unusual for people addicted to cocaine to develop gastrointestinal problems, including blockages.

In addition, some people experience gangrene, caused by reduced blood flow and a slowed-down immune system. These are very serious, life-threatening problems that often require emergency surgery.

Changes in Body Fat:

While a gastrointestinal problem could make people lose weight, particularly if the issue impacts the body’s ability to pull nutrients and sugars out of food, cocaine also seems to have the ability to change the way the body actually digests food and stores it for later, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

It’s been long assumed that people who use cocaine simply don’t take in enough food to keep their bodies nourished, and as a result, they tend to become alarmingly thin. Researchers at Cambridge found that people who use and abuse cocaine actually should weigh much more, as they tend to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods while they’re under the influence. Instead, their bodies don’t seem to process the food in the right way, and they get thinner and thinner.

American culture tends to place a high value on losing weight and staying thin. It’s a goal most people in this country work very hard to achieve, but a very low body weight could come with unintended consequences. It can make pregnancy harder, for example, and those who are alarmingly thin sometimes struggle with broken bones after minor falls. A severe dip in weight can also impact the heart, liver and kidneys. For some, it can be quite serious.

How Prevalent is Cocaine Abuse?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has provided information on the prevalence of cocaine abuse. According to the most recent data, 2.0% of the population, aged 12 and older, used cocaine in 2018. The prevalence of cocaine abuse was highest among those aged 18 to 25, with 5.8% of this age group using cocaine in 2018. Among those 26 and older, 1.6% used cocaine in 2018. The prevalence of cocaine abuse among Americans aged 12 and older has remained relatively stable since 2002, with only slight fluctuations in rates of use.

Getting Help For Chronic Cocaine Use

It’s clear that long-term cocaine use damages the body’s vital systems. Each hit that you take could be catastrophic to your long-term health. Thankfully, you can recover from cocaine addiction. In a comprehensive treatment program, you can learn how to handle the triggers that seem to push you to use, and you can learn how to focus on sources of pleasure that are unrelated to drugs. You can connect with others who use, and you can draw upon the strength of those who have recovered. You can also work with a medical team to improve your physical health, so you can feel strong in your body once more.

You’re not alone. You can join a group of courageous people and get your life back on track. At The Recovery Village, we’d like to help you. We offer a multidisciplinary approach to substance abuse recovery, meaning that we think it takes a village of professionals to help each client improve. Our work begins with a comprehensive evaluation, followed by the development of a specialized treatment program. You’ll be offered therapy that’s just right for you and your history, and your program will change as you change.

We know that choosing the right program is important, and we want you to be comfortable with your decision. Feel free to call us. We’ll answer any questions you have. We’re here 24 hours a day, and the call is free.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.