The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cocaine as a Schedule II drug. This means that cocaine has a high chance of being misused.
The Dangers of Cocaine: Possible Irreversible Physical and Mental Damage
Besides the initial powerful kick, cocaine use triggers a host of short-term effects. The intensity of the symptoms depends on the amount of cocaine taken and the route of administration. For instance, cocaine is absorbed faster by the body when it is injected. The resulting high comes on within minutes, and so do the other side effects. Binging on cocaine magnifies the high and also triggers more intense side effects that are usually not associated with taking small doses. However, many of these short-term effects subside almost immediately.
But with repeated cocaine use, short- and intermediate-term effects cumulatively go on to trigger a range of other physical and mental symptoms that last for months or years. Some of these effects are irreversible. According to a study published by PubMed, cocaine abuse leads to irreversible structural damage to organs like the brain, heart, kidney, liver, and lung.
It is also disturbing to note that maternal abuse of cocaine adversely affects the brain and the heart of the developing fetus.
In some rare cases, an immediate effect of cocaine use can even be death. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these are usually cases where cocaine use, usually an overdose, triggers a cardiac arrest or a stroke. Sometimes a cocktail of cocaine and heroin or cocaine and alcohol can trigger a fatal cardiac arrest.
Let’s delve into the details.
Short-Term Mental Effects of Cocaine
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of cocaine manifest almost immediately after taking the substance, whether by inhaling, snorting, or injecting. That’s because cocaine enters the bloodstream and is absorbed rapidly. This leads to a buildup of dopamine, the “happy” chemical that the human body produces. The result is the instantaneous feelings of euphoria—the high—that cocaine users experience.
Initially, cocaine also increases the levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. The symptoms of a cocaine-induced high include:
- increased energy
- mental alertness (due to increased norepinephrine)
- decreased appetite and sleep (due to increased serotonin)
- hypersensitivity to smell, sound, and touch.
These effects, however, do not last very long—15-30 minutes if the drug is sniffed and only 5-10 minutes if it is smoked. So some users binge on cocaine to experience the high again. Sometimes the side effects return, more intense, and manifest as angry outbursts, aggression, irritability, hallucinations, delusions, restlessness, anxiety, panic, and paranoia.
Short Term Physiological and Neurological Effects of Cocaine
Some common short-term neurological side effects of cocaine use are increased heart rate and blood pressure caused by an increase in norepinephrine levels, and abnormal heart rhythms. According to this research, chest pain is one of the most common side effects of cocaine that requires a visit to the emergency room. That’s because cocaine constricts blood vessels in the short term and affects the natural rhythms of the heart. On the other hand, cardiac arrhythmia caused by cocaine use may not resolve on its own and can worsen and lead to a cardiac arrest. Sudden death from cardiac failure is possible even in first-time cocaine users or right after taking large amounts of cocaine.
What are the short-term neurological effects of cocaine?
The short-term neurological effects of cocaine are:
- Increased levels of norepinephrine
- Increased heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Chest pain due to vasoconstriction
- Cardiac arrhythmia
The other common short-term physiological side effects of cocaine are vertigo, uncontrollable muscle twitches, and tremors.
The neurological side effects of cocaine use include headaches, seizures, strokes, and coma. Cocaine use also tends to worsen existing headaches.
Seizures, strokes, and coma can accompany cocaine overdose. According to the findings of the study, conducted by Sean Treadwell and Tom Robinson, cocaine can lead to strokes and coma or sudden death even in persons with no cardiovascular risk factors. This is because cocaine constricts blood vessels and may lead to the formation of life-threatening clots.
Acute Effects of Cocaine Cocktails
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, sudden death right after taking cocaine can occur usually in cases where cocaine has been mixed with alcohol or heroin.
Cocaine and alcohol react to produce cocaethylene, a substance that magnifies the effects of alcohol and cocaine on the heart. According to research, cocaethylene can increase the risk of sudden death in persons who use cocaine mixed with alcohol.
Heroin and cocaine taken together can also lead to fatal consequences. Because the stimulating effect of cocaine is offset by the sedating effect of heroin, users may unknowingly binge on heroin. The effects of cocaine subside sooner than those of heroin. This then intensifies the effects of heroin and may cause respiration to slow down in the person and sometimes, stop altogether.
Long-Term Physical Effects of Cocaine
Cocaine consumption can cause permanent damages to your health such as:
- Increased risk of stroke and seizure
- Increased risk of stroke and seizure
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage and in some cases chronic or acute kidney failure
- Damage to the walls of the gastrointestinal tract
- Damage to nasal membrane, lungs, and other tissues depending on method of ingestion
- Brain swelling
- Bleeding of the brain
- Impaired cognitive function
- Increased risk of contracting Hepatitis C and AIDS
The long-term effect of cocaine on the heart is well-documented. Cocaine causes:
- Inflammation of the heart muscle and imbalances in potassium, sodium, and calcium channels. Another symptom is narrowing of the blood vessels and arteries that, in turn, restricts blood flow to the heart and increases the chances of developing blood clots, aortic ruptures, heart attacks, and strokes. Some of these developments can lead to cardiac arrest and death.
- Long-term cocaine use affects the kidneys adversely. Renal complications of substance abuse are common because the kidneys filter most of these drugs and their metabolites. Cocaine is also known to be nephrotoxic, which means that just by introducing it in their bodies, users damage their kidneys to some extent. Cocaethylene, a metabolite of cocaine, is also known to damage the kidneys.
- Many cocaine users seem to prefer snorting the drug than administering it in any other way. Inhaling causes the cocaine vapors to reach the brain straight from the lungs. This produces an intense and instant high that cocaine users crave. But inhaling cocaine can cause a host of pulmonary complications like edema, hemorrhage, infection, asthma, and bronchitis. Chronic cocaine users often have shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain.
- Chronic cocaine use damages the walls of the gastrointestinal tract and reduces blood flow to this region. Users lose appetite, are unable to absorb nutrients from the food they take, and experience drastic weight loss.
- According to another research, cocaine abuse can lead to chronic or acute renal failure by keeping blood pressure levels persistently elevated, producing harmful free radicals that inflict oxidative stress, or damaging the renal cells directly. Cocaine constricts and thickens the blood vessels and arteries of the kidneys. This reduces blood flow to the organ that ultimately damages it.
- Cocaethylene is associated with liver damage. Acute cocaine intoxication can cause liver dysfunction by raising the levels of bilirubin and killing cells. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, some cocaine-induced liver damages resolve on their own within a few days. However, chronic cocaine use worsens liver damage and can lead to death usually through multi-organ failure.
Long-Term Neurological Effects of Cocaine
There are several potentially life-threatening neurological side effects of chronic cocaine abuse.
Long-term use of cocaine increases the risks of strokes and seizures. Chronic users can also suffer from bleeding inside the brain and swelling of the walls of the cerebral blood vessels. Both these conditions can increase the risk of life-threatening clots forming inside the brain.
Chronic cocaine abuse can cause memory disturbances and increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. This interesting study states that cocaine abuse damages gray and white matter in the brain. This impairs cognitive functionalities and inhibits the impulse control mechanism. Thus impaired, users exhibit poor decision-making, risk-taking tendencies, and rash, mindless behavior that can harm both themselves and those around them.
One of the most severe effects of long-term cocaine use is the development of cocaine dependence. For abuse to turn into addiction, considerable neurobiological changes must occur. The alterations in brain chemistry make it extremely hard for the addict to voluntarily give up cocaine. Trying to quit the addiction results in cocaine abstinence syndrome with unpleasant side effects—anxiety, paranoia, depression, and aggression—that resemble the “crash” of the cocaine withdrawal phase. So addicts are compelled to seek out cocaine.
Long-Term Psychiatric Effects of Cocaine
Chronic cocaine abuse triggers psychiatric effects in almost all users. Several studies indicate that restlessness, aggression, confused thinking, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and delirium are some common psychiatric side effects of cocaine abuse.
- Persistent feelings of suspicion that intensify to a state of paranoia are the classic symptoms of psychosis. Depression is also seen in some chronic users of cocaine.
- Alterations in the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine levels can lead to delirium. This is a potentially fatal condition characterized by confusion and rapid blood pressure and pulse rate fluctuations caused by autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
- According to some researchers, some neurological and psychiatric effects cumulatively give rise to a violent streak in cocaine-dependent individuals. Paranoia, increased irritability and aggressiveness, inability to think coherently, and poor impulse control make a person prone to violence.
Long-Term Effects of Snorting, Smoking, and Injecting
Cocaine ravages the body from the inside out. Besides the physiological, neurological, and psychological symptoms, the drug also produces a range of long-term effects depending on the route of administration.
Snorting cocaine regularly can cause infection of the nose and other adjacent structures, persistently runny nose, bleeding, and loss of sense of smell. Users can also experience hoarseness and have trouble swallowing. Smoking cocaine damages the lungs and worsens the symptoms of asthma.
Many cocaine users prefer to inject the drug because it then reaches the brain quickly through the blood stream. Long-term cocaine users who inject the substance often have puncture marks on their forearms. There may be swelling at the site. Some users can experience allergic reactions to the cocaine itself or the adulterated versions of the drug sold on the streets. Users who inject cocaine are also at an increased risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis C and AIDS through sharing of infected needles.
Side Effects of Crack
Crack is cocaine base that is available as a hard, rock-like substance. It is more potent than cocaine hydrochloride, the powder-like form of cocaine.
According to findings from various studies, crack produces more intense and violent side effects than cocaine hydrochloride. The side effects also come on more quickly than those produced by snorting cocaine hydrochloride.
Although crack is an impure variety of cocaine, it has more percentage of cocaine in it than cocaine hydrochloride. Besides, crack is in a form that turns into vapor at a much lower temperature than cocaine hydrochloride. So cocaine does not burn up and get destroyed when crack is smoked. The high that crack users experience is of a “higher” intensity than what is produced after smoking cocaine hydrochloride.
Is Cocaine Dangerous for the Unborn Child?
Yes, cocaine is extremely dangerous to the unborn child. Maternal cocaine abuse can severely hinder fetal organ development, often causing brain and heart deformities and functional deficiencies. These children often suffer from cognitive and behavioral disorders, and are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse disorders later in life.
There have been countless studies on and extensive media coverage of the adverse effects of cocaine on adults. But cocaine abuse by a pregnant woman can harm her unborn child as well. When a pregnant woman uses cocaine during the gestation period, the drug crosses the placenta and reaches the fetus. It is then distributed in the organs of the fetus in greater concentration than in blood. The developing heart and the nervous system of a fetus are at most risk from maternal cocaine abuse. There are both short- and long-term effects.
The Effects of Cocaine Exposure on the Fetal Heart
According to this study, maternal abuse of cocaine leads to babies being born with structural deformities and functional deficiency of the heart and ventricle, abnormal heart rhythms, and conduction abnormalities. In many cases, these symptoms persist for months after birth.
A large number of studies have been carried out to determine the effect of prenatal exposure to cocaine on the nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates certain cardiac functions, and cocaine affects the ANS. In some studies, newborns that had been exposed to cocaine in utero had altered heart rate and heart rate variability. Many researchers believe that long-term prenatal exposure to cocaine can even depress the ability of the ANS to regulate cardiac functions to such an extent that these babies grow up with an increased risk of developing heart disease later in life.
The Effects of Cocaine Exposure on the Fetal Brain
Because cocaine affects the neurotransmitter pathways in the brain, there have been many studies on the effects of prenatal exposure to the drug on the developing brain.
Prenatal exposure to cocaine inhibits the neurological development of the fetus. The results are abnormalities in the transmission of signals and structural and functional deficiencies in regions of the brain that control cognitive functions. For instance, in this study, infants who had been exposed to cocaine in utero show lesser gray matter in the prefrontal and frontal regions of the brain that control executive functions.
Many of these changes are permanent and according to this study, cocaine-exposed children exhibit increasing degrees of cognitive, behavioral, attentional, and motor deficits as they grow older.
These children have difficulty learning, behaving appropriately in social situations, and coping with stressors in life. As a result, many of them go through life experiencing difficulties in forming and sustaining meaningful relationships, holding on to jobs, and leading independent and unassisted lives.
Cocaine is one of the most destructive drugs out there that affects almost every major organ of the body and causes a range of unpleasant, bizarre, harmful, debilitating, and potentially fatal side effects. You must seek help to stall cocaine abuse, either by you or a loved one, in its tracks and prevent abuse from turning into the addiction.