Cocaine addiction : signs, symptoms and treatments
Cocaine is a potent stimulant drug and one of the four most challenging substances to quit. Here is more information on how cocaine works, signs and symptoms of cocaine use disorder and treatment options.
What is cocaine addiction?
Cocaine use disorder is when someone has developed a tolerance for and become addicted to cocaine. The drug is a highly addictive stimulant drug made primarily from the leaves of two coca species; Erythroxylum coca and Erythroxylum novogranatense.
Cocaine is distributed in two chemical forms: the water-soluble hydrochloride salt (a fine crystalline powder) and the water-insoluble cocaine base (freebase). Users inject or snort the drug in powder form.
Cocaine can help you perform physical and mental tasks quickly and efficiently. It also makes you hyper-alert and improves focus and concentration, which is why people in high-stress jobs often abuse cocaine. Large amounts of cocaine can lead to bizarre, unpredictable, and violent behaviour.
What is crack cocaine?
Crack cocaine is the freebase form of cocaine. It is created by processing the drug with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water. The solution is heated to remove the hydrochloride to develop a substance that is smoked.
Crack refers to the crackling sound you hear when freebase cocaine is smoked. The drug is also known on the street as Coke, snow powder or blow.
Crack refers to the crackling sound you hear when freebase cocaine is smoked. The drug is also known on the street as coke, snow powder or blow.
Street dealers often “cut” cocaine powder with additives such as cornstarch, talcum powder, flour or baking soda to increase their profits. They also mix cocaine with other drugs that contain a local anaesthetic or psychoactive stimulant. Some users combine cocaine with heroin, and this is called a Speedball.
Why is it illegal to snort or inject cocaine?
Cocaine is classified as a Schedule II drug because of its high potential for abuse. It can only be administered under strict medical supervision for legitimate medical uses, such as local anaesthesia for particular eye, ear and throat surgeries.
The coca plant grows in the jungles of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and neighbouring countries. For thousands of years, people in South America chewed or swallowed cocoa leaves for its stimulant effects. More than 100 years ago, the purified chemical – cocaine hydrochloride – was extracted from the plant and used as the main ingredient in tonics and elixirs to treat various illnesses.
Cocaine extract was even used in the early formation of what is Coca-Cola today. Cocaine extract was also used to block pain for surgeries and used for pain relief for chronic illnesses.
Eventually, research revealed that cocaine is a powerful stimulant that changes brain structure with repeated use. Cocaine was declared an illegal substance when the Harrison Narcotics Anti-Narcotic Act became law in 1914. It was one of the first pieces of American legislation on the issue of drug regulation.
How do people use cocaine?
People with a cocaine addiction either snort the powder through their noses or rub it into their gums. Some dissolve the powder and inject it straight into their bloodstream. Some addicts mix cocaine and heroin, known as speedballing.
Freebase cocaine is processed as a rock crystal. When the crystal is heated and inhaled into the lungs, it makes a crackling sound (hence the name crack cocaine). Some people sprinkle crack cocaine on marijuana or add it to tobacco and smoke it like a cigarette.
Did you know?
The main psychoactive compound in the coca plant is cocaine. However, the cocaine content in the raw leaves is very low (below 1 percent). You don’t get the same euphoria from chewing raw coca leaves as you do when cocaine is snorted or injected. You also don’t get the devastating physical and mental damage associated with cocaine use disorder.
What causes cocaine addiction?
Cocaine is a stimulant drug that increases dopamine levels in a part of your brain that controls movement and reward. The surge of dopamine in your brain’s reward pathway causes an intense rush of pleasure known as a ‘high’. Changes in brain chemistry from repeated use of cocaine can be permanent and result in substance use disorder.
Dopamine should recycle back in the cells that released it and then shut off the signal between nerve cells. However, cocaine prevents dopamine from being recycled and causes large amounts of dopamine to build up in the spaces between nerve cells. Eventually, this stops regular communication between the cells.
If you continue to use cocaine or start to use it in larger doses, your brain’s reward circuit has to adapt to make the neurons less sensitive to the drug. Over time, your brain becomes tolerant of the drug, so you need more potent and more frequent doses to get the same high you did in the beginning.
What is cocaine withdrawal?
The euphoric ‘high’ of cocaine happens almost immediately and disappears in a few minutes or an hour. It all depends on whether you are injecting or snorting cocaine.
Heavy cocaine users can go from the physical and emotional high to crushing depression, anxiety, aggression and agitation, known as “crashing”. The up-and-down effect of cocaine leads to severe psychological and emotional dependence on the drug.
If you stop using cocaine, you’ll experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Often cocaine withdrawal is so brutal, the person gives in to their craving for the substance.
What are the short-term side effects of cocaine?
- mental alertness
- hypersensitivity to touch, sight and sound
- high energy
- poor health and hygiene
What are the long-term side effects of cocaine or signs of a cocaine overdose?
- paranoia; extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
- hostility and aggression
- rapid or racing heartbeat
- dangerously high body temperature
- increased blood pressure
- constricted blood vessels
Is cocaine addiction dangerous?
Yes, cocaine can kill you if you overdose on the drug. Cocaine overdose can cause a heart attack, stroke or seizure, which can lead to death. The most common signs of cocaine overdose is a rapid heartbeat, chest pain and breathing difficulties. A person who overdoses on cocaine needs emergency medical help because the event can be fatal.
Cocaine increases dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which creates a euphoric high and boosts confidence and mental alertness. The problem is that cocaine also over-stimulates the cardiovascular system, which is far more dangerous.
What is the recommended treatment for cocaine addiction?
Going ‘cold turkey’ – where you stop using cocaine on your own – is not recommended if you are a heavy user. Cocaine withdrawal is harsh, and you shouldn’t try to handle it on your own.
First, you may need to be admitted for medical detox. Currently, there are no medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat cocaine addiction. Medically supervised detox is your best option to help manage the severe withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings, followed by psychotherapy.
Then preferably, you should go to an inpatient addiction treatment centre to complete an individualised addiction Program that includes intensive psychotherapy, a healthy eating and exercise Program, and holistic therapies to heal mind, body and soul.
Is it possible to recover from cocaine addiction?
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug, and the side effects of abuse can be devastating. Cocaine overdose can be fatal. That being said, it’s possible to recover from cocaine addiction.
It’s highly recommended that people with a cocaine addiction undergo medical detox in a clinical environment to manage uncomfortable and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. After that, psychotherapy and holistic therapies such as mindfulness meditation, art and music therapy, and acupuncture give you the best chance of long-term recovery.
What are the common symptoms of cocaine withdrawal?
Cocaine withdrawal ranges from moderate to severe depending on the frequency and duration of cocaine use.
Typical cocaine withdrawal symptoms include:
- poor concentration, slowed thinking
- slowed activity or physical fatigue after activity
- inability to experience sexual arousal
- depression or anxiety
- suicidal thoughts or actions
- vivid, unpleasant dreams or nightmares
- chills, tremors, muscle aches and nerve pain
- increased craving for cocaine
- increased appetite
We’re here to help.
Cocaine use disorder is a chronic disease caused by permanent changes in brain structure and function. Early medical intervention and psychotherapy can help you avoid long-term health conditions common with cocaine addiction. The sooner you get help, the better.
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