What is Cocaine?

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Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug. It is produced from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America.

Some health care providers legally use cocaine for valid medical purposes, such as local anesthesia for certain surgeries. However, recreational cocaine use is illegal. 

As a street drug, cocaine is a fine, white crystal powder. Street dealers often combine it with substances like cornstarch, talcum powder, or flour to increase profits. They may also mix it with other illegal and legal drugs, including stimulants like amphetamine or synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. 

Many people taking cocaine do not realize that it may contain other drugs, so adding synthetic opioids is especially dangerous. The increasing number of cocaine overdose deaths may be related to tampered drug mixes.

How Is Cocaine Taken?

People take cocaine by snorting it through the nose. Alternatively, they may rub it into their gums. More rarely, users dissolve the powder and inject it into their bloodstream. Some people inject a combination of cocaine and heroin, called a Speedball.

Other people may smoke cocaine that has been processed into a rock crystal, otherwise known as freebase cocaine. Users heat the crystal to create vapors to inhale into the lungs. This type of cocaine is called crack, which originates from the rock's crackling sound as it heats up.

Some people also smoke crack cocaine by sprinkling it on marijuana or tobacco. Then they smoke it like a cigarette.

Regular cocaine users often take it in binges, consuming it repeatedly within a short period at increasingly higher doses to maintain their high.

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Side Effects & Risks of Cocaine Use

Short-term side effects of cocaine use include:

  • Extreme happiness and euphoria
  • High energy and mental alertness 
  • Hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch 
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia, including excessive and unreasonable distrust of others
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Increased body temperature and blood pressure
  • Fast or irregular heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Muscle twitches
  • Restlessness

Long-term risks and health effects depend on the method of use and include:

Snorting

  • Loss of smell
  • Nosebleeds
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Issues with swallowing

Smoking

  • Cough
  • Asthma
  • Respiratory distress
  • Higher risk of infections, including pneumonia

Consuming by Mouth

  • Significant bowel decay from reduced blood flow 

Needle Injection

  • Higher risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases
  • Skin or soft tissue infections and scarring or collapsed veins

Even cocaine abusers who don’t use needles put themselves at risk for HIV. Cocaine impairs judgement, which can result in risky sexual behaviors with infected partners.

Can a Person Overdose on Cocaine?

Yes, it is possible to overdose from cocaine abuse. A cocaine overdose occurs when a person consumes enough of the drug to produce severe effects that can be life-threatening. An overdose may be intentional or unintentional.

Death from overdosing can occur on the first use of cocaine or after many uses. Many people who take cocaine also consume alcohol simultaneously, which is particularly risky and can lead to overdose.

Other people may mix cocaine with heroin, which is another dangerous and deadly combination. 

Signs of a Cocaine Overdose

Physical signs of a cocaine overdose include:

  • Increased sweating, body temperature, or heart rate 
  • Difficulties breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion, seizures, and tremors

Psychological signs of a cocaine overdose include:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium

Dangers of Cocaine Overdoses

Cocaine is one of the more dangerous stimulants available. This is primarily due to the potential for overdose leading to death. Death from a cocaine overdose can result from various complications, including heart attack, seizure, and stroke.

Cocaine-related deaths have fluctuated in the last decade or so. In 2006, there were more than 7,000 cocaine-related deaths in the United States. This is the highest number in the previous 15 years. Deaths declined following that year to around 4,000 in 2010.

However, since 2010, cocaine-related deaths have increased. In 2015, there was a 1.6-fold rise in deaths from 2010. Statistics show that males are more likely to overdose on cocaine than females. The approximate ratio is an average of 3:1 of male to female.

While death is the most drastic consequence of cocaine overdose, it is not the only one. A heart attack, stroke, or seizure resulting from an overdose can cause significant damage to the human body without leading to death.

Other common and serious health consequences of a cocaine overdose include irregular heart rhythm, coma, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.

Treatment for Cocaine Overdose 

There is no specific type of medication that can reverse a cocaine overdose. Treatment involves supportive care and depends on the symptoms present.

A cocaine overdose can often lead to a heart attack, stroke, or seizure, so first responders may try to treat the overdose by addressing these conditions. To treat a heart attack, first responders must restore blood flow to the heart. To address a stroke, they must restore oxygen-rich blood supply to the affected part of the brain to stop the seizure.

If you suspect a cocaine overdose, call 911 immediately as the situation requires professional medical help. If the user experiences a seizure, it is essential to move them away from any objects that may harm them due to their body movement. A cold compress may help decrease body temperature.

Those present need to recognize any indicators of a cocaine overdose, as time is an essential factor in these situations.


Treatment for Cocaine Addiction


There are various addiction treatment options available for those struggling with cocaine abuse. If you or a loved one is suffering with a cocaine addiction, seeking professional help as soon as possible is the best way to prevent a cocaine overdose. It may mean the difference between life and death.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies are useful in treating substance abuse issues such as cocaine addiction.

Contingency management (CM) is an incentive-based addiction treatment program. It is effective in rewarding patients in recovery for abstaining from drug use. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients avoid relapse by encouraging them to develop new skills to cope with situations and triggers that could result in cocaine use.

Detox

Comprehensive treatment facilities can help aid recovery from cocaine addiction in an immersive environment. Detox overseen by a trained medical professional can help patients manage withdrawal symptoms from the drug.

Therapeutic Communities

Those healing from cocaine addiction may need to live in therapeutic communities to help them on the road to recovery. Therapeutic communities are drug-free residences where people experiencing substance use disorders help each other understand and adjust their behaviors.

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Resources +

Cocaine DrugFacts,  National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 13 Jul. 2018, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine 

Richards JR, Le JK. Cocaine Toxicity. [Updated 2020 Oct 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430976/ 

What are the long-term effects of cocaine use?, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 6 Jun. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-long-term-effects-cocaine-use 

Overdose Death Rates, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 10 March 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

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