Cocaine: The Effects, Risks and How to Overcome Addiction

Cocaine is made from an extract of the leaves of Erythroxylon coca which is also known as the coca scrub, a plant indigenous to the Andes of South America. Cocaine was originally used as an anesthetic in the late 19th century for eye surgery, becoming popular and widely used by the medical profession until the early 20th century when it was discovered that the drug was highly-addictive.

Cocaine is a powerful natural stimulant and when Coca-Cola was first produced, it contained around 9 milligrams of the drug per glass. The ingredient was removed in 1903 although the drink is still flavored with the coca plant.

However, cocaine is still widely used as an illegal recreational drug.

Cocaine is an illicit recreational drug that has the street names of powder, snow, coca, marching powder and nose candy. When it is sold, it is invariably mixed with other chemicals known as adulterants such as lidocaine, dextrose, procaine, lactose, and mannitol. Street dealers of the drug mix cocaine to increase its volume, dilute the amount of pure cocaine and thereby increase their profit margin. Naturally, contaminating an already dangerous drug with other substances increases the risk of adverse effects considerably.

Cocaine is usually taken intranasally or by snorting the drug up through the nose. It is quick to enter the bloodstream via nasal tissue and so its effects are fast-working. Some users inject cocaine for an almost immediate ‘hit’ and others smoke or inhale the drug through their lungs.

What Are the Effects of Using Cocaine?

Cocaine works in the following ways:

  • A powerful natural stimulant, cocaine has a direct effect on the central nervous system, raising levels of dopamine which is the brain’s neurotransmitter linked to pleasure sensations.
  • On receiving a pleasurable stimulus from cocaine, such as the smell of something delicious cooking, neurons release dopamine to send the pleasure signal to the brain. Once this is done, dopamine then returns to the neuron it came from and stops sending its signal.
  • Cocaine prevents dopamine from returning back to the neuron so that it continues to send its pleasure messages to the brain and the feeling of euphoria is extended.
  • Excess dopamine in the user’s system gives them an enhanced feeling of well-being, alertness, euphoria, and energy, which usually lasts around 15 to 30 minutes

The Risks

There are significant risks associated with cocaine abuse and because it is a fast-acting drug, users can become dependent or even addicted very quickly. The risks of using cocaine include:

  • HIV infection
  • Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C infection
  • Mood and personality disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease and respiratory illness
  • High blood pressure and gastrointestinal disease
  • Seizures and stroke
  • Weight loss, lack of appetite and altered sleep patterns
  • Shortened attention span and slow reaction time
  • Nosebleeds and complete collapse of the septum of the nose
  • Overdose, potentially fatal

In addition to these risks, long-term users of cocaine can gradually alter the brain’s reward system and significantly increase the likelihood of becoming addicted. Although occasional users may not present any social or physical problems, medical professionals insist that there is no ‘safe’ amount of cocaine.

People who have become dependent or addicted are characterized by their need to prioritize the drug over any other activity and they may become completely unrecognizable to those close to them. Cocaine is a very expensive street drug and so users also run the risk of getting into severe financial difficulty, potentially losing their job, home, family and even facing bankruptcy.

How to Overcome Cocaine Addiction

The first and most significant step towards overcoming addiction is recognizing it exists. Depending on the nature of the individual’s abuse history, some people are advised to attend residential treatment for cocaine addiction, whereas others may be able to complete rehab as an outpatient. Either way, the first step towards rehabilitation is through detox, which takes place after a full and thorough assessment of each patient’s case.

Although medications are used in cocaine addiction treatment, there is no substitute drug available that can help patients recover quickly from their dependence as is the case with heroin addiction and methadone programs.

People who stop using cocaine are likely to find they experience powerful cravings that can last for years in recovery, which is the principle reason intensive residential rehab is highly recommended for long-term efficacy.

Another important advantage of specialist addiction treatment for cocaine addicts is that patients are introduced to a support network via individual and group therapy sessions. Sharing experiences, emotions, hopes and fears with others in similar situations is an enormous support for someone going through addiction treatment and once they have completed the program, they can continue to lean on this network for support in recovery.

According to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), around 70% of people entering into specialist cocaine addiction treatment either stop using the drug completely or significantly reduce their use within the first 6 months.

Clare Louise Author