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Cocaine is an addictive chemical made from the leaves of the coca plant. Also called blow, coke, crack, or snow, it is one of the most common street drugs in the United States, with more than 1.5 million users. Most users inhale or snort the drug, typically sold as a crystal white powder, through the nose. Some rub it on their gums or inject it. Other smoke a free base, rock form of cocaine called “crack.”

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

When ingested, cocaine releases high levels of dopamine, which create feelings of euphoria, energy, alertness and hyperactivity in users. Its short half life, or period in which the user actually experiences an effect, is short. With snorting, the “high” might only last 15 to 30 minutes. Smoking has an even more immediate effect with a “high” of 5 to 10 minutes.

Cocaine causes several physiological effects. These may include increased body temperature, constricted blood vessels, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. For these reasons, cocaine can be particularly dangerous, especially when combined with other drugs or alcohol. Someone on cocaine may be talkative or jittery and  sensitive to sight, sound, and touch. They may also have dilated pupils.

Cocaine and Addiction

Although some recreational users never develop a dependence on cocaine, others can become highly addicted from their first experience. One common misconception, however, is that only those suffering from addiction need treatment for cocaine. Indeed, casual cocaine use is often indicative of related addictions or underlying issues, such as depression, that require professional assistance. Moreover, cocaine’s short-lasting effects mean that users quickly seek their next high, even if the use is short-term. This can cause pressure on the heart and organs, which may lead to devastating effects, including heart attack, even for occasional users. For addicted users, restlessness and extreme anxiety can become overwhelming when sober. Meanwhile, users will rapidly develop a tolerance to the drug, which means they need more of the drug to reach their desired high.

Psychological Addiction

Physical addiction doesn’t develop as quickly as with other drugs, but the psychological addiction is quite severe. If used on a regular basis, cocaine addiction can become greatly debilitating within a year. Some who suffer from addiction go to extreme lengths to fund their habit, even selling expensive possessions, borrowing from questionable sources or even resorting to stealing from friends. Financial trouble, combined with other emotional issues or a sudden change in behavior can be the first sign of cocaine use.

Recognizing Cocaine Use

Cocaine has a strong, and often visible, effect on one’s mental health. Symptoms can include paranoia, bursts of euphoria followed by lethargy and introversion, emotional instability or moodiness, insomnia, anxiety, short attention span, irritability, loss of appetite, and even hallucinations. There are many physical symptoms that stem from a cocaine addiction. These include dilated pupils, twitching, shaking, sniffing, frequent bloody or runny noses, dark circles around the eyes, nausea, stomach pain, rapid heartbeat, impotence, and migraine headaches. Cocaine withdrawal can cause depression, fatigue, and extreme lethargy. In extreme cases cocaine withdrawal can cause heart problems and even seizures. Overdose and sudden death from cocaine use are not uncommon.

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Signs & Symptoms

Thankfully, early intervention can go a long way with cocaine addiction. If you suspect that you or a loved one has a cocaine problem, consider these common signs:

  • Strange or uncharacteristic behavior, such as suddenly becoming a night owl
  • Keeping secrets or giving suspicious or nonsensical answers to direct questions
  • Missing obligations or arriving late to appointments and events
  • Impulsive or erratic behavior
  • Financial trouble
  • Repeatedly asking friends or family for money, selling possessions, taking out loans
  • White stains on clothing or skin
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, constant sniffling, or oversized pupils
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Spending time with friends known to use

Although no single behavior on its own spells a problem with addiction, seeing multiple behaviors are a good indication to seek help. If you know someone who might have a problem, it is best for that person to get professional assistance in their recovery from addiction. In-patient treatment is often recommended, and historically the most effective way for those struggling with cocaine use to recover. The transition back into everyday life is equally important. Developing healthy interests, supportive friends, and a stable routine is vital to long-term recovery, as is identifying and resolving co-occurring disorders, such as depression.

To learn more about the best treatment approach for you or a loved one, call us to speak with a supportive wellness professional about your experience.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.