Cocaine, a stimulant, carries a high risk of addiction. Individuals may quickly progress from recreational use to abuse to addiction to cocaine. Each phase along this continuum will involve symptoms. The following are some of the possible physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms of cocaine abuse:
Tolerance is a primary physical symptom of cocaine abuse. Due to tolerance, a person will require more cocaine over time to get the familiar high. If cocaine use stops or the amount used is appreciably reduced, withdrawal symptoms will emerge. Withdrawal symptoms can include depression, fatigue, excessive appetite, restlessness and nightmares.
Drug use casts people into the dark in many respects.
Those who use drugs as well as those who are concerned about drug activities can feel as if they are operating in unchartered territory. It can be particularly challenging to identify the phases of drug abuse, such as recreational use versus physical dependence versus addiction. For this reason, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) no longer uses the term physical dependence and addiction. Rather, the DSM-5 instituted use of the concept and term substance use disorder. This classification merges the symptoms of physical dependence and addiction. For any given classification of a drug, there is a substance use disorder for it. For example, cocaine is a stimulant, and therefore comes under stimulant use disorder.
A mental health professional can make a diagnosis of a stimulant use disorder if the qualifying period of time has been met and certain symptoms have emerged (there are 11). Typically, the symptoms must occur over at least a 12-month period, and the drug must be causing some impairment to the person’s functionality in some way. The following is a selection of five paraphrased symptoms of stimulant use disorder:
Symptoms or side effects can emerge during different phases of cocaine use. A person who has just recently used cocaine may show one set of signs while a chronic user will exhibit another.
People who are concerned about the impact of their cocaine abuse can benefit from an understanding of the different symptoms that can emerge. Individuals who suspect that cocaine use is occurring, but are not sure, may be especially attuned to shifts in the loved one’s physical health, mental state, and behavior.
People who use cocaine will usually have some common experiences. Portrayals of cocaine use persist in movies, and do provide some insight into the experience. The reason cocaine users, like actors in movies, repeatedly snort or bump cocaine is that the drug is fast-acting but short-lived. Some of the immediate experiences associated with cocaine use are:
Cocaine use is linked to numerous short-term side effects.
According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, the following are some of the reported short-term effects:
In the long-term, cocaine use can have several physical side effects. The following is a sample of the possibilities:
Cocaine use can also result in a fatal overdose. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2001 to 2014, there was a 42 percent rise in the number of cocaine-involved deaths. In 2006, the number of cocaine overdoses showed a high of over 7,000 deaths. The low for this period was in 2010, when the rate was just above 4,000 fatal overdoses. In 2014, there were more the 5,000 cocaine overdose deaths.
Different mental health symptoms can emerge at different points during cocaine addiction and even after recovery. There is a host of possibilities, ranging from rare to common. The following are some of the known mental health side effects that can emerge immediately after cocaine use or as a result of chronic use:
Mental health symptoms arise from the sudden impact of cocaine on the brain, but over time, they can owe to structural changes in the brain. For example, chronic use of cocaine can cause long-term damage to the brain and lead to deficits in cognitive functioning. This happens because ongoing use of cocaine causes an imbalance in dopamine levels. In addition, there can be a decrease in the prefrontal cortex, the area that is responsible for attention, processing complex data, and logic. To illuminate this point further, consider that individuals who have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often have deficiencies in the prefrontal cortex area.
Some of these changes will relate to using the drug (i.e., physical and mental health changes) while others will be a direct outgrowth of actions taken to get the drug (can include stealing or selling possessions of varying value). Still other behaviors may involve the administration of the drug (for instance, if it’s smoked, the related apparatus may be found in the person’s living area).
The following are some additional behavioral changes that may accompany cocaine use or a cocaine use disorder:
It can also help to know the paraphernalia that is associated with cocaine use. Paraphernalia varies depending on the specific way this stimulant drug is used. Snorting is a common method of administration. Paraphernalia involved in snorting includes straws, pens with the contents emptied out, a rolled-up dollar bill, a mirror or other surface (that may have cocaine residue on it), and sharp-edged objects like credit cards (that may have cocaine residue at the edge). If a person is injecting cocaine, syringes, spoons (likely with burn residue), lighters, and a belt or hose (to help the person find a vein) may be discovered. It may be alarming to find cocaine paraphernalia, so it’s important to keep in mind that stimulant use disorder is a treatable condition. Recovery can reverse much, if not all, of the damage associated with a cocaine use disorder.
By the time behavioral changes are apparent, there are also likely to be other symptoms. Individuals who are concerned about a loved one’s suspected cocaine use may feel uncertain as to how to parse through the symptoms they are witnessing. The key isn’t to focus on classifying the symptoms; one doesn’t have to know why they’re happening – just that they are, and that they relate to cocaine use. It’s important to compare the person’s familiar behaviors to current ones, as well as consider any hard evidence, such as finding cocaine or cocaine paraphernalia.
Next steps can include having an informal talk with the person. If that would not likely be helpful or doesn’t seem sufficient, it is possible to stage an intervention with the help of an interventionist or an addiction specialist. In view of the negative side effects associated with cocaine use, it’s helpful to act as early as possible.