In Health


Despite its glamor and high-profile endorsements, cocaine is a vicious drug that can destroy everything it touches. Thankfully, help is readily available that can help addicts to leave cocaine behind for good.

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a stimulant, meaning it increases levels of alertness, attention and energy in the body. To do this, the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure all have to be increased as well. While that is what stimulants normally do, cocaine also induces feelings of euphoria in its users, which accounts for some of its addictive nature.

Cocaine works by flooding the brain’s pleasure and rewards center. When you do something you enjoy doing, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, to make you feel good about that activity. For some people, it’s exercise; for others, it could be having sex, enjoying good food, listening to music they like, etc. Whenever you do something you enjoy, your brain releases dopamine to create a positive association with that activity, rewarding you with pleasant sensations that dissipate after a while – when the dopamine is reabsorbed by the brain.

But cocaine not only prevents dopamine from being reabsorbed; it mercilessly forces your brain to keep pumping out dopamine. That’s why users tend to combine cocaine with other exciting activities (sex, concerts, thrill rides, etc.), because cocaine electrifies your whole brain into enjoying the experience beyond normal levels. In the process, normal, healthy brain communication is completely disrupted. Since the sensations while on cocaine feel so good, you’re instantly compelled to try it again and again, until small doses of cocaine no longer do it for you.

As you increase your intake of cocaine, it completely alters your brain’s chemistry, rendering you unable to enjoy anything without the use of cocaine. Eventually, cocaine becomes a source of pleasure in and of itself, but it exacts a devastating toll on your body.

Notwithstanding these and other obvious dangers of cocaine, as well as the effectiveness of communicating its dangers and illegalities by health care and law enforcement, cocaine remains a popular drug. In 2012, there were approximately 1.6 million current cocaine users in the United States.

Effects of Cocaine

Even as cocaine gives you thrills and rushes, it increases your body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. You may get powerful headaches, as well as stomach pain and nausea. A side effect of cocaine is that is reduces appetite, which is why users often appear malnourished and starved.

But more dangerous than simple aches, pains and cosmetic changes to your body, cocaine puts you at risk for heart attacks and strokes. Cardiac arrest, which is the sudden stoppage of the heart, is a common result of even casual cocaine abuse. Cocaine also damages the kidneys and the lungs, and, despite its reputation as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, it can cause decreased sexual function in men and women.

Since cocaine reduces inhibition, it puts its users in danger of contracting diseases like HIV as a result of unprotected or promiscuous sexual behavior. Sharing needles or other drug paraphernalia can also lead to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C, as reported by the Brazilian Journal of Medicine in 2007.

While injecting cocaine intravenously carries its own risks, snorting cocaine is no safer. It’s the most common way cocaine is used; however, snorting damages the nasal lining in the nose, causing a loss of smell, nosebleeds, and difficulty swallowing. Cocaine taken orally reduces blood flow to the stomach, causing severe bowel gangrene. A study published in the Journal of Emerging Medicine in 2002 found that oral intake of cocaine can even cause small holes in the lining of the stomach.

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Long-term use of cocaine can eventually cause paranoia and psychosis, where a user is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. A 1999 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that paranoia occurs in 68 to 84 percent of cocaine users, and 55 percent of people who have cocaine-related psychiatric disorders become dangerously violent.

Because cocaine is so powerfully addictive, simply stopping its use is not easy. The body and mind become so dependent on cocaine that the sudden cessation of intake – whether an attempt to quit or simply the result of a cocaine binge coming to an end – can cause devastating and demoralizing withdrawal effects, such as:

  • Intense craving for cocaine
  • Poor concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Increased appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts

These withdrawal effects can be so severe that even if a user desperately wants to stop using cocaine, the need to overcome these effects with another hit becomes compelling, thus deepening the spiral of addiction.

Signs of Cocaine Abuse

Cocaine is so powerful a drug that it leaves many telltale signs, either physical paraphernalia or physiological symptoms. If you are, or someone you know is, exhibiting any of these, it may be a sign of cocaine abuse:

  • Chronically runny nose (snorting cocaine damages the lining of the nose)
  • Unwarranted euphoria and feelings of invincibility
  • Constant anxiety, agitation or restlessness
  • Items used to store or snort cocaine (rolled-up pieces of paper, small plastic cards and tiny baggies)
  • Paranoia
  • Needle marks on the arms, buttocks or thighs (wherever cocaine is injected)
  • Long periods of sleep or trying to sleep (as a result of exhaustion after the cocaine wears off)

Finding Treatment for Cocaine Abuse

Despite the addictive and powerful nature of cocaine, an addiction can still be treated. The best way to treat a cocaine addiction will be physically removing the user from the places and people that have encouraged (or enabled) their cocaine use, and then helping them purge their body of the drug. This process is called detoxification, and though it’s not always required in the case of cocaine addiction, it is a necessary part of rehabilitation for some. It may require the use of anti-anxiety medications, such as desipramine or a combination of phentermine and fenfluramine, to reduce the anxiety and depression often associated with cocaine withdrawal.

Once the patient has been weaned off cocaine, the next stage of treatment will help them mentally address the temptation to use the drug again. This form of recovery often entails Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. In this type of therapy, a professional will help the former user understand how to take control of their life. A good CBT program will help the patient identify the reasons they were drawn to cocaine in the first place, and then develop new, positive, healthier ways to deal with those reasons.

Finally, cocaine treatment will put the user in touch with a network of other recovering addicts who have successfully kicked their cocaine habits. The temptation to use cocaine will linger, possibly for years and decades to come, but the connection and accountability that come from other people who have shared similar experiences will help the patient remain true to their recovery and committed to their healthier life.

If you are afraid that cocaine is ruining your life, or the life of someone you know, please call us. Our admissions coordinators are ready to answer your questions and to give you all the information you need to get started on the path to recovery. You can leave cocaine behind for good and start embracing a more positive future today.

M.D & Ph.D at Stanford University

Dr. Michael Miller, a clinical psychologist based in Salisbury, MD, received both his M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1975. After ten years in clinical practice and the birth of his daughter, he serendipitously entered medical journalism. Combining his deep interest in health issues with his passion for writing, Dr. Miller has found the perfect synergy. His work spans a wide range of topics, including health policy and basic science, effectively bridging the gap between clinical practice and academic research. In addition to his professional accomplishments, Dr. Miller is a frequent speaker at academic and industry conferences, sharing valuable insights from his extensive career in psychology and health care. He lives with his daughter and their beloved pets in both Salisbury, MD and their country retreat.

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