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PCP Addiction, Effects, and Treatment

3 min read · 8 sections

Phencyclidine (fen-SAI-kluh-deen) (aka PCP) is a dissociative anesthetic that was originally developed in the 1950s for use as an intravenous anesthetic. Although medical use of the drug has been discontinued due to a high incidence of postoperative delirium, PCP has historically been illicitly, recreationally misused.1

Its effects can include a sense of floating, feeling detached from reality, anxiety, memory loss, changes in sensory perceptions, and more.2 Given its high potential for abuse, PCP is a Schedule II drug according to the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.3

Read on to learn more about PCP and its effects as well as signs and symptoms of phencyclidine use disorder. You’ll also find insights on how to get help if you or someone you know is struggling with PCP use.

What is PCP?

Discovered in 1926, PCP was initially used as a general anesthetic and marketed in the United States under the brand name Sernyl. However, thanks to related post-op hallucinations and feelings of unease (aka dysphoria), it was discontinued for human use in 1967, and legal use has been limited to veterinary applications ever since.4

In the ‘60s, however, PCP emerged as a popular street drug illegally manufactured in laboratories. And by 1970, its recreational use was widespread. Street names for PCP include angel dust, ozone, wack, and embalming fluid.1,4

Although PCP comes in several forms, such as tablets and capsules, it’s most often used in liquid or powder forms. PCP can be injected, swallowed, and snorted, and it’s sometimes smoked after being sprinkled on leafy substances such as tobacco, parsley, and marijuana.5 When PCP is smoked with marijuana, the combination is sometimes called killer joints, super grass, and fry.1

Short-Term Effects of PCP

Studies suggest that dissociative drugs such as PCP disrupt the action of a brain chemical called glutamate, which plays a role in emotions, pain perception, and cognition. PCP may also alter the actions of dopamine, and the effect likely creates the “rush” people feel from various recreational drugs.2

The short-term effects of dissociative drugs such as PCP are typically dose dependent.6 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), low to moderate doses can deliver effects such as:2,7

  • Changes in sensory perceptions (e.g., body image, sight, sound, shapes, time).
  • Feelings of detachment from oneself and the environment.
  • Feeling disoriented and confused.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Increased heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and blood pressure.
  • Face redness and sweating.
  • Dizziness, nausea, vomiting.
  • Numbness in the hands and feet.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Difficulty moving.

Higher doses of PCP can sometimes result in PCP overdose as well as various other adverse short-term effects that can include:2,7

  • Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thought.
  • Fear, panic, anxiety, paranoia, exaggerated strength, aggression, and feelings of invulnerability.
  • Violent behaviors.
  • Dangerous changes in blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and breathing.
  • Quick up and down eye movements.
  • Severe muscle spasm.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

Mixing PCP with Other Drugs

PCP is often used in addition to other substances, and such combinations may be particularly dangerous.4 When paired with depressants such as benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax) or alcohol, PCP use can lead to severely slowed breathing, coma, and death from respiratory arrest.5,6

In addition, some PCP effects (e.g., psychosis and aggressive and agitated behaviors) may require sedation via medication and perhaps even restraints to prevent harm and ensure the patient’s safety.4 Similarly, profound alterations in perception caused by dissociative drug use can put people at risk of serious harm. For example, those using PCP might do things they’d never normally do, such as jumping out of a window or acting on suicidal thoughts.6

Delayed Effects of PCP Use

Additional long-term effects of PCP can include the following, which may persist for more than a year after PCP use stops:5

  • Anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Speech difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

PCP Addiction and Withdrawal

While the effects of long-term use of dissociative drugs such as PCP haven’t been thoroughly investigated, some research suggests that repeated PCP use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and an associated withdrawal syndrome when the drug is stopped. It can also lead to the development of a substance use disorder or addiction, the latter of which is a chronic condition characterized by compulsive use despite negative consequences to the person.6,8

PCP withdrawal symptoms can include:2,9

  • Cravings for PCP.
  • Headaches.
  • Sweating.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Depression.
  • Excessive sleep.

PCP Overdose and Toxicity

PCP has inherent risks for overdose toxicity. At high doses, PCP overdose or toxicity can result in severe hyperthermia, liver damage, seizures, muscle tissue breakdown (rhabdomyolysis), and renal failure.10

Symptoms of PCP Use Disorder

If you or a loved one are misusing PCP, there are signs to help you recognize when it becomes problematic. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 5th edition), the signs of a PCP use disorder can include:11

  • Taking increasingly larger amounts of the substance or extending its use over longer periods of time than intended.
  • Ongoing desire or ineffective efforts to decrease use.
  • Spending considerable time trying to obtain the substance, use it, and/or recover from its effects.
  • A strong desire or craving to use the drug.
  • Failing to fulfill obligations related to work, school, household, etc. as a result of use.
  • Continued used regardless of related social and interpersonal issues.
  • Abandonment of social, recreational, or employment activities in favor of substance use.
  • Recurrent use in hazardous situations (e.g., operating machinery, driving).
  • Continued use after developing a physical or psychological issue related to the substance.
  • Developing tolerance (i.e., need for significantly increased amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect and/or diminished effect for the same amount of substance).

PCP Addiction Treatment, Detox, and Rehab

While many treatment options for substance use disorder include detox, there are no specific detox protocols or medications used to treat PCP use disorder. However, if a patient enters treatment intoxicated by PCP, they may need behavioral management for related agitation and potentially violent actions. Sometimes sedating medicines such as benzodiazepines are also used to help calm these patients.9

Treatment for PCP use disorder and other substance abuse disorders (SUDs) usually involves a combination of behavioral therapeutic approaches and other psychosocial interventions.12  However, to increase the probability of successful treatment, it’s important that all treatment options (e.g., interventions, services, locations) are carefully tailored to each individual.13

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