Addiction is a disease that affects virtually all aspects of life. Family, friends and work suffer, relationships fall apart, and all that is left is a constant urge to seek the very substance that ruins your life.

Decades of research proves that addiction is not the product of weakness or the unwillingness to stop; rather, it is an illness that supersedes all reason and rationale.  

Where you begin and where you end up are not one in the same. Chances are, the drug or alcohol was originally consumed voluntarily and under the assumption that it could be controlled. But over time, an increase in the amount of drugs or alcohol are needed to achieve that original “high.” As this happens, significant changes to the brain happen, fueling a compulsive and uncontrollable need to use or drink again.

One drug that is particularly dangerous and incredibly addicting is cocaine.

What is cocaine?

Made from the coca plant native to South America, cocaine is a very fast-acting, stimulant drug that produces a short lived, but intense euphoric high. Street dealers mix cocaine with flour, corn starch or talcum powder in an effort to make it more profitable. And when it’s mixed with synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, it is exceptionally dangerous because it increases the numbers of overdose deaths among those who use cocaine.

How does cocaine affect your brain?

In a healthy brain, dopamine – the neurotransmitter in the brain associated with movement and reward-motivated behavior – is released in response to pleasure inducing activities, such as eating or exercising. But drugs, like cocaine, release two to 10 times the amount. It’s a powerful surge of dopamine, which, in turn, increases the “rewards,” as well. If the substance use continues, the brain begins to produce less dopamine. This is why people, who habitually use cocaine, consume more of it and thus create a vicious cycle of use.

According to an article published by the National Institute of Health (NIH), cocaine increases the levels of dopamine and prevents it from being recycled. Normally, when dopamine is released, it is recycled back to the cell that released it, shutting off the signal between two nerve cells. But with cocaine use, the dopamine builds in the space between the cell and stops normal communication. The flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit is so strong, the brain begins to reinforce drug-using behavior.

And the drawback? Adaptation. The reward circuit eventually adapts to the excess in dopamine, resulting in people using larger amounts of cocaine and using it more frequently.

What are some of the physical symptoms from using cocaine?

Cocaine symptoms emerge almost immediately after use, but disappear within minutes to an hour. The high that is associated with snorting cocaine lasts 15 to 30 minutes; whereas, injecting or smoking cocaine produce shorter lasting, but stronger effects.

According to the American Addiction Centers (AAC), some of the immediate experiences are:

  • Euphoria: An intense feeling of excitement or happiness, euphoria also stems from the brain’s reward system. In fact, nature wired the brain to reward behavior that feels good. So when cocaine hijacks the brain, people are motivated to keep using.
  • A sense of being supremely confident: A person high on cocaine can have feeling of being better than others. Known as grandiosity, these individuals act pretentious, imposing or superior.
  • Being outgoing: Cocaine is appealing to people with social anxiety or depression because it makes a person particularly sociable. During a cocaine high, a person may talk rapidly, excitedly or erratically.
  • Demonstrating uncharacteristic mood swings: The pendulum of emotions shift rather explosively when a person is on cocaine. In a cocaine-high state, the individual may have outbursts of anger, be restless or exhibit moments of hyperactivity.

What are the mental health symptoms of cocaine use?

Mental health problems arise during addiction or even in recovery. They range from common to rare. According to the AAC, here the known mental health side effects from using cocaine sporadically or from chronic use:

  • Depression
  • Cocaine-induced psychosis
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Vivid, frightening dreams
  • Tactile hallucinations, such as the sensation of bugs being under the skin
  • Delirium
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • A feeling of apathy or lack of ability to experience pleasure

Mental health symptoms develop from the sudden impact of introducing cocaine to the brain. Using cocaine over time, however, can attribute to structural changes in the brain. It’s all due to the imbalance in dopamine levels cocaine produces. Additionally, there can be a decrease in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area responsible for attention, processing complex data and logic.

What are the behavioral symptoms of cocaine use?

As the progression from recreational use to substance use disorder unfolds, so will apparent changes in a person’s mood, appearance and behavior. The AAC lists the following as some the behavioral changes:

  • Experiencing problems in life: Unable to meet normal responsibilities, appointments or obligations whether in personal or professional arenas.
  • Neglected appearance: Less time or interest is taken with grooming, appearance and clothing.
  • An increase in efforts to be secretive: Prohibiting others from entering private spaces, such as their bedroom, car or school locker.
  • Draining resources: Increase in credit card spending, money borrowing, liquidation of assets, or inability to pay bills.

What are the short and long term effects from using cocaine?

The NIH and the AAC says some people find that using cocaine helps complete simple tasks, while others experience bizarre, unpredictable and violent behavior. Wherever you fall on that list, the effects are extreme and damaging.   

Short Term Effects:

  • Extreme happiness and bursts of energy
  • Mental alertness
  • Hypersensitivity to sight, sound and touch
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • A loss of appetite
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased in blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Cravings to keep using cocaine
  • Tremors and muscle twitches
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Dilated pupils
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia – people who have been using for a while, however, experience severe paranoia, where they lose all sense of reality and suffer from auditory hallucinations (hearing noises that are not there.)

Long Term Effects:

  • Irreversible damage to the heart, brain and blood vessels
  • High blood pressure, which can lead to stroke, heart attack and death
  • Damage to the kidneys, liver and lungs
  • Tooth decay
  • Weight loss and malnutrition
  • Damage to the reproductive organs in both males and females
  • Nasal cavity and tissue damage (if snorted), such as loss of smell, nosebleeds, frequent runny nose and problems with swallowing.
  • Lung damage (if smoked), such as asthma, respiratory distress and higher risk of infections like pneumonia
  • HIgher risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis C and other bloodborne diseases; collapsed veins, track marks, scarring (if injected).
  • Increase risk of Parkinson’s disease
  • Damage to the brain, which leads to deficits in cognitive functioning.

Can you over overdose on cocaine?

The simple and terrifying answer: yes. Whether intentional or unintentional, when a person uses enough of it, cocaine can produce serious adverse effects. It can happen either from the using it once or at other point in time. The more severe health consequences from overdosing are:

  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures
  • Strokes
  • High blood pressure and high body temperature
  • Hallucinations
  • Extreme agitation or anxiety

Furthermore, cocaine impairs judgment, which can result in poor decision making, such as risky sexual behavior. Therefore, even if it is not injected, people who use cocaine place themselves at risk for contracting HIV. Studies also show that cocaine speeds up HIV infection. The NIH confirms cocaine damages immune cell function and promotes reproduction of the HIV virus. And people who do contract the HIV virus and consume cocaine, are more susceptible to contracting other viruses, such as hepatitis C.

How long will cocaine stay in your body?

Various factors are taken into consideration. The dose amount; the presence of other drugs; and a person’s age, weight, sex and physical health would determine how long it takes for cocaine to be out of a person’s system. Drinking while using cocaine also slows down the elimination of cocaine from the body.

The AAC says that after the last use, cocaine (or its metabolites) can show up on a blood or saliva test for up to 2 days. It can be detected in a urine test for up to 3 days. In a hair test, it can appear for months to years after use. A heavy user can test positive on a urine test for up to 2 weeks.

The method of use affects how quickly the drug reaches the brain, but it does not affect how long cocaine stays in a person’s system.

Metabolized by enzymes in the liver and blood, cocaine’s main metabolite present in urine is called “benzoylecgonine”, followed by “ecgonine methyl ester.” According to the AAC, benzoylecgonine is the main cocaine metabolite used in drug testing because it has a urine concentration 50 to 100 times greater than the concentration of cocaine.

Benzoylecgonine can be detected in urine for up to 4 days, depending on frequency of use, the dose and the person’s metabolism.

Final Thoughts

Bottom line, cocaine is not a drug to be trifled with. While 80’s movies paint a party-like, let’s-live-forever kind of picture. It is everything but that. Sure, its immediate effects can be a thrill of rush, but it’s that type of deceptive result that keeps luring you back for more and traps you in a downward spiral. The abnormal amount of dopamine cocaine releases and its addictive properties can damage your body, your brain and your overall well-being, and what’s worse is that if doesn’t kill you, the consequences can last years into recovery.

So if you or someone you know are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, please reach out. Help is available.