Injecting Cocaine: Risks & Dangers
In This Article
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is an intensely addictive stimulant drug. The origins of cocaine stretch way back to thousands of years ago when South Americans started chewing and ingesting coca leaves. When ingested, the leaves (Erythroxylon coca) produce stimulant effects.
More than 100 years ago, people started isolating the purified chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, from the plant to create modern-day cocaine.
Today, cocaine is considered a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. A healthcare professional can also administer it for legitimate medical uses, including local anesthesia for some eye, throat, and ear surgeries.
As a street drug, cocaine is a fine, white powder called Coke, Snow, Blow, or Powder.
There are two chemical forms of cocaine that people abuse: the water-soluble hydrochloride salt and the water-insoluble cocaine base or freebase. Users either inject or snort the hydrochloride salt, which is a powder.
Cocaine ravaged communities worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, especially when a cheaper form known as crack cocaine was introduced to low-income communities.
Recent studies show that about 1.4 million Americans 12 years and older suffer from a stimulant use disorder; most of those people have a cocaine use disorder.
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Can You Inject Cocaine?
People can consume cocaine in several ways; one of them is via injection. Injecting cocaine results in a fast, intense high. Injecting cocaine is extremely dangerous and puts the user at increased risk for overdose. When people inject cocaine, they dissolve the substance in water and then inject it. Intravenous cocaine use releases the drug directly into the bloodstream, heightening the intensity of cocaine’s effects.
Other Ways People Use Cocaine
Other ways that people use cocaine include snorting and inhaling. Some cocaine users rub the addictive drug on their gums.
Another popular method of cocaine use is to smoke cocaine that has been processed to create a rock crystal, also known as freebase cocaine. When the crystal is heated, it produces a vapor that users inhale into their lungs. This form of cocaine is called Crack.
The most common way that users consume cocaine is by snorting the white powder.
Effects of Injecting Cocaine
Cocaine is a stimulant. It manipulates the different elements of the brain's chemistry, particularly neurotransmitters. Cocaine has a profound effect on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the feelings of pleasure and reward in the brain.
Using cocaine increases the activity of dopamine. This induces pleasurable feelings which act as a positive reinforcement inside the brain. As a result, long-term changes in brain chemistry occurs.
A chronic cocaine user will develop tolerance to the pleasant and gratifying effects of the substance. Because of this, they will need more of the drug to achieve euphoria. This constant need to increase use and dosage will eventually lead to cocaine dependence and addiction.
The effects of cocaine on an individual will depend on several factors. These include:
- How cocaine was ingested (smoking, injecting, inhaling, or snorting cocaine)
- How much cocaine was used
- How pure the cocaine was
Recognizing the Signs of Cocaine Addiction
People can develop an addiction to cocaine no matter how they choose to use it. Worrying signs that may indicate that a person is developing or suffering from cocaine addiction include the following:
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Extreme depression
- Recurrent upper respiratory tract infections
- Persistent runny nose
Side Effects of Shooting Cocaine
The effects of cocaine are grouped into short-term effects and long-term effects. The effects of cocaine appear almost instantly after consumption and typically last between a few minutes and an hour per dose. Small amounts of cocaine usually make the user feel energetic, talkative, euphoric, mentally alert, and experience hypersensitivity to sound, light, sight, and touch.
The short-term side effects of cocaine include:
- Constricted blood vessels
- Dilated pupils
- Increased body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
- Panic and paranoia
- Muscle twitches
With regular cocaine use, tolerance will build, and users will need higher, more frequent doses of cocaine. At the same time, users may develop sensitization, where less cocaine is necessary to produce anxiety, convulsions, and other adverse effects. The long-term side effects of cocaine include:
- Increased irritability, panic attacks, and psychosis leading to hallucinations
- Long-term cocaine injection use leads to puncture marks at the injection site, known as tracks, which increases a user's chance of contracting diseases like HIV and hepatitis C
- Allergic reactions to additives found in street cocaine
- Organ damage
- Reduced blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, which may lead to tears and ulcerations
- Weight loss and malnourishment
- Increased risk of stroke and seizures
- Heart muscle becomes inflamed
- Destructive effects on the heart and entire cardiovascular system
- Chest pain that may feel like a heart attack
- Neurological problems including bleeding in the brain
- Movement disorders, including Parkinson’s Disease
- Cognitive impairment
Dangers & Risks of Injecting Cocaine
Severe medical complications and health risks are associated with cocaine use. Some of the most common include:
- Cardiovascular effects — disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks
- Neurological effects — headaches, seizures, stroke, and coma
- Gastrointestinal complications — stomach pain and nausea
- Death — In the most extreme cases, cocaine use can lead to sudden death
Cocaine Overdose Risks & Symptoms
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine overdose happens when a user takes enough of the substance to become toxic in their system, causing a severe reaction.
NIDA figures show that cocaine-related deaths have been on the rise since 2010. In 2016, there was a 1.6-fold increase in cocaine overdose deaths from 2010, the highest rate since 2006.
Opioids are associated with a large number of cocaine deaths annually.
It is incredibly vital for people to recognize the symptoms of cocaine overdose because time becomes a matter of life or death in overdose situations. The symptoms of a cocaine overdose include:
- Increased body temperature
- Fast-beating heart
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Panic attacks
There is no specific medication to reverse a cocaine overdose. Treatment for an overdose depends on the symptoms and the user’s history of drug use. Since cocaine overdose can lead to a heart attack, stroke, and/or seizure, medical personnel will treat the overdose by:
- Stopping the seizure
- Restoring blood flow to the heart in the event of a heart attack
- Restoring oxygen-rich blood supply to the impacted area of the brain in the event of a stroke
Treatment for Cocaine Abuse & Addiction
Like other drug and alcohol addictions, addiction treatment options for cocaine generally involve detox and therapy in an inpatient treatment program, though outpatient treatment is also available. Rehabilitation programs at a treatment center dramatically increase a person's chances of a successful recovery from substance abuse.
- Detox — cocaine has a very short half-life, meaning the drug generally leaves the body within 90 minutes. Once the drug leaves the body, withdrawal symptoms start. During the “crash,” cocaine users experience low moods and energy levels and increased appetite.
- Inpatient treatment — this treatment occurs at an addiction center where the person suffering from cocaine addiction will live for a determined amount of weeks.
- Outpatient treatment — this option allows patients to schedule treatment around their schedule. Unlike inpatient treatment, they do not live at the treatment center. Outpatient treatment is typically recommended for less severe cases of addiction.
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- “Overdose Death Rates," National Institute on Drug Abuse, 19 Oct. 2020.
- NIDA. "What is Cocaine?," National Institute on Drug Abuse, 20 Jul. 2020.
- “Cocaine,” Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, 14 Mar. 2017.
- Cregler, L L. “Adverse health consequences of cocaine abuse,” Journal of the National Medical Association vol. 81,1 : 27-38.
- Porrino, Linda J et al. “The effects of cocaine: a shifting target over the course of addiction,” Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry vol. 31,8 : 1593-600. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2007.08.040.
- Petkovska, Lidija et al. “Multi-System Complications after Intravenous Cocaine Abuse,” Open access Macedonian journal of medical sciences vol. 5,2 231-235. 22 Mar. 2017, doi:10.3889/oamjms.2017.046.