One of the most infamous drugs in the world, cocaine is a powerful stimulant that can be highly addictive. Synthesized from the coca plant, a plant native to South America, cocaine is popular throughout the globe due to some of the short-term effects that accompany its use.
Cocaine can bring on feelings of euphoria, foster increased alertness in the user, and result in hypersensitivity to outside stimuli. While there can be both negative psychological and physical effects in the short-term, as well as long-term consequences, the most immediate danger associated with cocaine is overdose.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine overdose is brought on by a person taking enough of the drug for it to reach toxic levels in their system, causing a serious reaction within the body. Essentially, cocaine can poison the system, and toxic levels do not appear to be completely dictated by dosage. According to the University of Arizona, there have been cases of overdose from a few hundred milligrams, while some users can ingest several grams of cocaine without overdosing. This suggests that overdose toxicity can depend largely on the individual user and their specific susceptibility to the toxins.
Potency of the drug is also known to vary greatly, as cocaine in its street drug form is often mixed or “cut” with other materials in order to increase profits for dealers. This means that the potency of one gram of cocaine from one source can be significantly different from one gram of the drug from another source.
For a time, especially in the early portion of the 1980s, cocaine was not generally seen as a harmful drug but simply one that created positive short-term effects. However, as overdoses became more common, word got out that cocaine could be extremely dangerous. The overdose and death of basketball star Len Bias, an athlete that seemed almost superhuman, was a glaring example of the perils of cocaine use.
Symptoms of an Overdose
Cocaine causes the heart rate of a user to increase, which can result in heart problems. Elevated blood pressure is also common, another factor that can lead to serious health complications. Physical symptoms of cocaine overdose include but are not limited to:
- Elevated heart rate
- Rise in body temperature
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the chest
Some psychological symptoms of a cocaine overdose include:
- Panicked feelings
Dangers of an Overdose
It’s extremely important for those present to recognize any potential indicators of an overdose, as time is a crucial factor in such a situation. Cocaine is one of the more serious stimulants available, mainly because of the potential for overdose leading to death, which can occur due to a multitude of complications, including heart attack, seizure and stroke.
According to NIDA, cocaine-related death totals have seen significant fluctuation in the last decade or so. In 2006, there were more than 7,000 cocaine-related deaths in the nation, the highest number in the last 15 years. The totals steadily declined following that year, bottoming out around 4,000 in 2010. However, since 2010, cocaine-related deaths have been on the rise again. In 2015, there was a 1.6-fold increase in deaths from 2010, the highest rate since 2006. As far as gender is concerned, these statistics show that males are much more likely to overdose on cocaine than females, averaging an approximate 3:1 ratio of male to female.
Polydrug use in cocaine overdoses is common, especially in overdoses resulting in death. Opioids, a drug group that includes prescription painkillers, are associated with a large number of cocaine deaths every year. It’s a trend that is on the rise as well, according to NIDA. In 2010, the numbers of cocaine overdose deaths involving opioids and those not involving opioids were essentially equal. By 2015, the number of annual cocaine overdose deaths involving opioids had more than doubled, while overdose deaths not involving the use of opioids had increased at a much less significant rate. This implies that not only is polydrug use with cocaine increasing, but it’s also becoming more fatal.
While death is certainly the most drastic of the consequences of cocaine overdose, it is not the only one. A heart attack, stroke, or seizure brought on by an overdose can do significant damage to the human body without resulting in death.
Recognizing the symptoms of cocaine use can be a good tool for overdose prevention. As noted earlier, the potential for potency differences in batches of cocaine means even a casual user runs the risk of overdose. Narconon notes the following physical and psychological symptoms of cocaine use:
- Nose constantly running
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Dilated pupils
- Unusual level of excitement
- Increased aggression
Symptoms that are often present following prolonged use or bingeing include:
- Agitated behavior
- Apathetic attitude
- Excessive sleeping
While casual users are in danger, the risk of overdose increases dramatically for more serious users. Those with an addiction to the drug often take it in binges, ingesting a large amount of the substance in a short period of time. According to NIDA, short-term effects from this type of use can be drastic. A user’s heart rate can be disturbed, which can lead to the aforementioned heart attack risk. Serious neurological effects ranging all the way from headaches to coma are possible as well. Cocaine users can also experience gastrointestinal problems.
In cases of polydrug use featuring a combination of cocaine and alcohol, the heart is put in grave danger due to the toxicity of the cocktail being heightened by the mixture. Polydrug use of cocaine and heroin, sometimes referred to as a “speedball,” can be extremely hazardous as well.
Long-term physical effects vary, depending on the method of consumption. Cocaine commonly comes in the form of a fine white powder, and the most popular ingestion method is snorting it through the nose. The act of snorting the substance results in the effects of the drug being felt quickly after consumption, but over time, it can lead to various issues, such as nosebleeds, loss of the sense of smell, and difficulty swallowing.
Crack, another popular form of cocaine, is found in the form of a crystal rock, and it is usually smoked. This can do damage to the lungs. Taking cocaine intravenously increases the risk of contracting diseases commonly associated with sharing needles, such as hepatitis C and HIV. Internal damage is also possible with long-term cocaine use. The gastrointestinal tract can be damaged by a lack of blood flow, and heart tissue can become inflamed or ruptured.
The brain is also very susceptible to the effects of cocaine. The expansion of cerebral blood vessels and cerebral bleeding are some of the neurological issues that arise with long-term abuse. Parkinson’s disease, a condition that affects movement and can bring on tremors, can also be an effect of cocaine use. Over time, cocaine use can have negative effects on basic brain function, such as decision-making, memory, and motor functions. It’s clear that even if a user survives long-term cocaine abuse, there are other major health concerns that can crop up.
In the Event of an Overdose
If you suspect a cocaine overdose, the first thing to do is call 911, as the situation demands professional medical assistance. If the user is having a seizure, it is important to keep them away from any objects that might injure them due to their body movement. A cold compress can be useful in helping to decrease body temperature.
In the event that a cocaine user survives an overdose, getting them into a treatment program is crucial. According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, cocaine use is high among those ages 18 to 25. This means that young people are putting themselves at risk for major health problems and even death due to overdose. Getting someone help before an overdose is obviously ideal, and there are effective treatment methods available to those in need.
Behavioral therapies have proven to be useful in treating cocaine addiction. Contingency Management, an incentive-based program has shown to be effective in rewarding those in recovery for abstaining from drug use. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is useful in helping clients avoid relapse by developing new skills to cope with situations and triggers that could lead to cocaine use. Therapeutic communities and comprehensive treatment facilities foster recovery in an immersive environment, which can be crucial in the vulnerable stages of early recovery.
Overall, there are plenty of options available to help those struggling with cocaine abuse and addiction. Getting professional help as soon as possible is the best way to prevent a cocaine overdose; it can mean the difference between life and death.