Knowing the tops risks of cocaine use can help people understand the physical, psychological and financial dangers that come with using the drug. 

Cocaine is a plant that contains naturally occurring stimulant properties – some of the most powerful stimulant substances that are produced in nature. Common to South America, the leaves of the Erythroxylon coca, or coca scrub, are processed into a powder that is commonly abused recreationally and highly addictive to users. Around the turn of the century, cocaine was thought to be harmless. Each glass of a popular soda contained as much as 9 milligrams of cocaine until the early 1900s, and even today, the drug is used in the medical context for a variety of purposes, but especially as anesthesia and/or local pain blocker. Known on the street as “snow,” “coke,” “C,” “slopes,” “powder,” “blow,” “nose candy,” and other euphemisms, cocaine has been a popular recreational drug for decades. While the pure form of the drug is dangerous enough, it is often cut with an array of chemicals and substances designed to bulk up its weight and, in some cases, make it seem more potent than it is. This means that the user is often unsure of what exactly is in the drug and, therefore, can never be sure of what its exact effects will be.

Users snort the drug as is, sprinkle it over marijuana and smoke it, dissolve it in water and inject it, turn it into crack rock and smoke it in a pipe, and combine its use with every other drug available, including alcohol.

Unfortunately, a number of health problems and medical emergencies can result, including:

  1. Stroke and/or heart attack: Compared to people who have never used cocaine, the risk of stroke and heart attack is much higher among cocaine users. Why? Harder arteries, higher blood pressure, and thicker heart muscle walls as compared to those who have never used the drug may be the reason. In fact, chronic abusers of cocaine were 35 percent more likely to have a hardened aorta and 8mm Hg higher systolic blood pressure as compared to the general, non-cocaine-using public.
  2. OverdoseCocaine side effects, especially when combined with other drugs of abuse, can cause seizures, heart failure, respiratory failure, cerebral hemorrhage, and/or stroke. There are no medications available to “save” a cocaine user who inadvertently overdoses on the drug. In many cases, overdose can lead to lifelong brain damage and impaired cognitive and/or physical function or death. The risk of overdose is increased by using large amounts of the drug in a short period of time, underlying medical issues, and using other illicit substances at the same time. There has also been some evidence to suggest that injection drug use and smoking cocaine may indicate a higher risk of overdose as compared to snorting the drug.

How much is too much? Experts say there is no safe amount of cocaine use.

  • Addiction: When a person uses cocaine, it causes the dopamine levels in the central nervous system to rise and stops dopamine from being reabsorbed, creating an excess of this feel-good chemical. This triggers the pleasure and reward system in the brain and is responsible for the high felt by the user. Though this high may only last for 5-30 minutes, depending upon how it is ingested, the feeling can be intensely addictive. Many feel able to take on anything and experience no pain or depression. Unfortunately, use of the drug and repeating this action of dopamine release can lead to long-term changes in the brain. When this happens, the urge to use the drug can increase, making use almost compulsive – one of the signs of an addiction.
  • Other medical risks: Smoking cocaine can lead to respiratory issues like coughing, shortness of breath, bleeding in the lungs, and other lung disorders. Snorting the drug can lead to a lost sense of smell, chronic runny nose, chronic nose bleeds, difficulty swallowing, and hoarseness. Injection drug use can increase the chance of contracting a blood-borne disease like hepatitis C and HIV.

Eventually the compulsion to use cocaine takes over when addiction becomes an issue. Addicts may prefer to get high rather than taking part in leisure activities, going to work, and spending time with family. The more they use the drug, the more changes occur in the brain, and the stronger the hold of the drug on the user.Additionally, any use of cocaine by any method can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Headache
  • Increased body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
  • Stomach cramping and nausea
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Emotional issues, including anxiety, paranoia, and mood swings
  • Even more medical risks: There are physical changes that occur in the brain with long-term cocaine use – including a loss of grey matter, according to one study. In addition, poly-drug use can increase the complications experienced by the user. For example, in one study, 44 percent of young people who took part also abused cocaine – which may contribute to a higher risk of developing a lifelong addiction to any drug.

When someone uses cocaine while drinking alcohol, the two together create a new chemical called cocaethylene. This increases the high created by the cocaine use as well as increases the risk of sudden death.  

Treatment for Cocaine Abuse and Addiction

If cocaine use and abuse are becoming a problem for you, treatment can help. Medical detox as well as long-term therapeutic treatment can help you to stop using cocaine – and all substances – safely, while learning how to live a more healthful life. Contact The Recovery Village now for more information.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.