The Long-Term Effects of Cocaine on Mind and Body

As of the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 1.5 million Americans were current users of the illicit drug cocaine. As a stimulant, cocaine speeds up respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. It also increases alertness, energy, focus, attention, and wakefulness while suppressing appetite.

How Cocaine Works in the Body and Brain

The Role of Emotions in Recovery and TreatmentCocaine elevates levels of dopamine in the brain and then prevents it from being naturally recycled. This leads to an overflow of the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter in the brain, which causes the intense and powerful “high” that cocaine can induce. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that the brain uses to regulate emotions, send signals of pleasure, and control body movement.

Depending on how much and the method in which cocaine is abused, the intensity, duration, and onset of the euphoric effects may differ. For instance, smoking or injecting the drug sends it directly into the bloodstream for a near instantaneous “rush” while snorting it may delay the high and decrease its intensity. Since a cocaine high is fairly short-lived, it is often taken in a “binge and crash” pattern. This means that doses are stacked back to back. High doses, or bingeing on cocaine, can cause paranoia. The crash that follows a cocaine high can cause irritability, depression, fatigue, hunger, and the need to sleep for days, which is often followed with cocaine cravings.

As a powerful stimulant, cocaine is highly addictive. Drug tolerance can form in few doses, requiring individuals to take more and more of the drug to feel good. Drug dependence is usually not far behind. The limbic system, which is the part of the brain that manages how a person processes rewards and subsequent reinforcing behaviors, is damaged with repeated cocaine abuse and the disruption of dopamine transmission. It may become hard for individuals to feel happy without cocaine, and difficult withdrawal symptoms, such as mental impairment, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, increased appetite, and cravings, may be common when the drug wears off. It can take time for the brain to restore normal and healthy levels of dopamine without cocaine’s interference. Low levels of dopamine can be distinctly uncomfortable and relapse (a return to drug use after stopping for a period of time) may be common.

Almost 1 million Americans battled addiction to cocaine in 2014. About 40 percent of all emergency department (ED) visits related to drug abuse or misuse involved cocaine in 2011, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes.

Additional Health Concerns of Perpetuated Cocaine Abuse

Cocaine is typically snorted, injected, ingested, or smoked. Each of these methods of abuse can have their own set of health risks and long-term consequences, such as:

  • Smoking cocaine: This method may cause respiratory issues and lung problems, and lead to chronic cough or the onset of bronchitis. Smoking crack cocaine, or cocaine in rock form, can result in a unique pulmonary syndrome called “crack lung,” which may lead to respiratory failure, RSNA RadioGraphics
  • Ingesting cocaine: This method can reduce blood flow and cause bowel decay.
  • Snorting cocaine: This method can damage sinus and nasal cavities, causing frequent nosebleeds and runny nose, a loss of the sense of smell, and difficulties swallowing. The BMJ Case Report also warns that snorting cocaine can cause a particular form of drug-induced chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the sinuses) and lesions, known as cocaine-induced midline destructive lesions (CIMDL), which can destroy nasal, pharyngeal, and palatal tissues.
  • Injecting cocaine: This method can lead to scarring and track marks, infections, skin lesions, collapsed veins, and an increased risk for contracting infectious diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. NIDA reports that cocaine use can also increase the progression of HIV as it interferes with the functions of immune cells and promotes HIV reproduction.

Chronic cocaine abuse can lead to movement disorders and even potentially the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a disorder affecting the central nervous system. Repeated and regular cocaine abuse can also lead to malnutrition from years of appetite suppression, or even a potential break with reality as individuals can become paranoid and experience hallucinations after high doses of cocaine. Irritability and restlessness can follow regular and repeated cocaine binges.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns that perpetuated cocaine use can cause ischemic heart conditions, cardiac arrhythmias, sudden cardiac death, stroke, convulsions, or even death. Cocaine puts a lot of strain on the heart and can cause chest pain. In addition, cardiac complications, including aortic ruptures, inflammation of the heart muscle, and difficulties contracting the heart, are common.

High blood pressure, seizures, and neurological problems, like intracerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain), may occur, NIDA reports. Significant cognitive issues may also be the result of long-term cocaine use and an inability to make decisions about punishments and rewards, control impulses, sustain attention, remember things, and complete motor tasks may be consequences.

Cocaine abuse can also complicate existing and simultaneous medical and mental health disorders. Side effects and risk factors surrounding cocaine abuse are heightened when other drugs are used in conjunction with it as well.

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