Medically reviewed by:
John Nguyen, B.S.
SA Content Team
Table of Contents
Understanding Cocaine Abuse
Cocaine is an incredibly addictive drug produced from coca plant leaves originally found in South America. Cocaine abuse occurs due to users chasing its stimulant effects. When cocaine is abused, it can be consumed in different forms including inhalation by smoking, snorting intra-nasally, gum rubbing, and intravenous injection. Different methods of processing the coca leaves result in products that best fit each of these administration forms. Each of these ways of abusing cocaine delivers different times for onset and peak highs as well as lengths of high duration. In general, however, cocaine is a short acting drug, so users may repeat hits every 10 to 15 minutes to maintain a high, especially if they are injecting or smoking it.
People who abuse cocaine as usually doing to because of the highly desirable effects it delivers, such as:
- Sociability and talkativeness that makes one more at ease in social situations
- A decreased need for food and sleep, often resulting in weight loss
- A renewed sense of energy
- A euphoric high
However, what people who misuse this drug are not taking into account are the dangers of cocaine abuse and the serious issues the drug can cause. Understanding how cocaine can affect your mind, body, and everyday life will allow you to realize how dangerous the abuse of this drug can become.
Signs and Symptoms of Cocaine Abuse
Cocaine users are frequently very talkative and energetic. This high-energy state can be a telltale sign of stimulant abuse. Other outward signs give specific clues about the user’s method of cocaine administration. For example, track marks on the arms and legs are characteristics of those who are injecting cocaine. They may exhibit skin lesions, salmon-colored patches of skin, infections and skin ulcers, or areas of necrosis where the skin tissues are actually dead.
Those who regularly snort cocaine will commonly have nasal issues, like a chronic runny nose or nosebleeds. Perforation or ulceration of the nasal septum is also a common symptom of powder snorting. Finally, users may have suspicious skin burns, cracked lips, or cracked thumbs from using cocaine pipes.
Common physical symptoms of cocaine use include:
- Dilated pupils
- An increase in body temperature
- An increase in blood pressure
- An increase in heart rate
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Chest pain
- An increase in energy and alertness
- Irritability and mood changes
- Promiscuous behaviors
Consistent cocaine abusers will not sleep or eat very often so they will also lose weight quickly. And, like most stimulants, the drug is likely to cause abuse that occurs in a binge-crash cycle. This is where individuals keep using as long as possible in order to prolong their high and then suddenly crash when they stop, experiencing all the withdrawal effects. Then, they repeat the process over again.
Dangers of Cocaine Abuse
People often abuse stimulants only for their desirable effects, not realizing how many risks they are taking when abusing the drug. For example, the binge-crash pattern causes individuals to experience severe withdrawal effects, including depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. Other risks of cocaine abuse include:
- An increased risk of heart attack or stroke – because of the stress the drug puts on the heart, one is much more likely to experience serious heart problems or even heart disease, even if at a young age.
- Unpredictable and dangerous behavior – the drug can cause severe mood swings, and many people who enjoy the euphoric effects do not realize they will also experience severe anxiety, paranoia, and even panic attacks; the drug also has a tendency to cause users to become hostile and violent.
- Psychosis – a temporary psychosis, including hallucinations/delusions and dangerous behavior, can take hold of those who abuse cocaine in the long-term; while this issue will often subside with treatment, it can resurface years later without warning.
- High body temperature
- Loss of one’s sense of smell and damage to the nasal septum
- Chronic headaches
- Reproductive damage
- Chronic insomnia
Further, a person can die from abusing just one large dose of cocaine, which may lead to cardiac arrest and then respiratory arrest. This makes cocaine one of the more dangerous drugs available, as its overuse can be deadly.
One who uses cocaine frequently also puts themselves at risk of experiencing severe consequences of their risky behavior, including contracting HIV, hepatitis B and C, or other transmittable diseases through the sharing of needles or unsafe sex. The use of cocaine, in any form, can lead to severe effects, not all of which are easy to––or even can be––reversed.
Signs of a Cocaine Overdose
Cocaine in any of its forms is classified as a stimulant drug, which means that an overdose begins with “hyped up” cocaine overdose symptoms such as confusion, severe anxiety, aggression, high blood pressure and heart rate, and seizures. Symptoms of a heart attack (usually chest pain) or stroke can be present. At a high enough dose, the body eventually decompensates and the person’s heart may stop. Other drugs involved in the cocaine overdose, including alcohol, can alter this set of symptoms and signs.
The best thing that you can do for a cocaine overdose patient is to get medical help immediately. Call 911 and give as much information as you can. There is no antidote for cocaine overdose symptoms. If the person is aggressive, do not try to restrain them. If the person is not breathing or breathing is very shallow, start rescue breathing if you can. If they have no pulse, start chest compressions.
Cocaine is one of the more addictive street drugs available today. Though it is only considered a Schedule II substance, it is hardly ever used medically, and those who abuse it almost always gain it from dangerous sources. However, many people who misuse cocaine do not care because, after becoming addicted, all that matters is obtaining more of the drug.
Tolerance, dependence, and addiction set in quickly because of the constant binge-crash cycle that most users follow. Because the withdrawal effects are largely psychological in nature, an individual will often sleep them off before using more of the drug. Unfortunately, they will need more each time in order to experience the same effects.
In addition, the level of cravings caused by the drug is unlike those caused by any other substance. A person who suddenly stops taking the drug or cannot obtain more will experience cravings so intense that they will often do anything to make them stop.
Identifying Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine addiction is important to identify due to its dangerous, even deadly, effects. Questions that can be asked in order to make this determination include:
- Does cocaine use occupy one’s mind even when not being used?
- Does one abuse the drug often and in doing so try to keep the high for as long as possible?
- Have close members of my social circle mentioned problems about my cocaine abuse?
- Does one often resort to lying in order to hide problems cocaine may be creating in one’s life?
- Does one come up with excuses to do the drug?
- Does one feel unhappy unless on cocaine?
- Has one experienced any physical or mental problems due to one’s cocaine use?
- Has one experienced any job- or social-related issues due to cocaine use?
- Has one tried to reduce abuse previously but failed?
- Does one believe one would not be able to stop abusing without assistance?
If one answered yes to any of these questions, treatment is absolutely necessary. Remember, substance addiction alters the brain in such a way that quitting is difficult––and often dangerous––without professional help. This is why seeking treatment is so important for long-term cocaine abusers.
Cocaine Addiction Treatment
Cocaine addiction is treated similarly to other types of substance use disorders. When entering an addiction treatment facility, the first step is going through a cocaine detox.
While there are currently no medications approved by the FDA to treat cocaine addiction, drugs like antipsychotics and antidepressants might be helpful during the withdrawal stage. In addition, certain behavioral therapies could be beneficial to recovery, such as
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: a program that helps patients relearn positive coping skills and behaviors to avoid relapse
- Contingency management: a program that asks patients to take drug tests and then provides them with rewards when their tests come back negative
- Motivational enhancement therapy: a program that helps patients invoke inward/internal sources for overcoming addiction
Family/couples therapy is helpful in getting loved ones involved in the recovery process. Cocaine Anonymous (twelve-step facilitation) and other support groups therapies can often be utilized in addition to professional treatment to help patients overcome their substance abuse and create real change. Recovery support services help former addicts further that change through overall helping them reach their full potential.
The Matrix Model is a statistically successful framework specifically designed to treat stimulant addiction that draws from the various different therapeutic methods and functions through a critically positive therapist-patient relationship.