Cocaine Abuse and Addiction

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on September 30, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 30, 2013

What Are Cocaine Abuse and Addiction?

Cocaine is an extremely addictive and poisonous drug. People who are addicted to cocaine will frequently do whatever it takes to get more of the drug, regardless of the risks or consequences. Using cocaine can cause serious health problems and may lead to death, usually from cardiac arrest, stroke, or seizure. About 15 percent of people in the U.S. have tried cocaine (National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA]). Cocaine is also known as coke, C, flake, snow, crack, or blow. It is derived from the coca plant, which is native to South America.

Cocaine is a stimulant. It primarily impacts the brain, leading to feelings of extroversion and euphoria. Addiction to cocaine can develop very quickly, even with minimal use. An addiction can be both physical, meaning that the user’s body craves the drug, and mental, meaning that the user strongly desires the effects of the cocaine.

Habitual cocaine use can lead to psychiatric disorders.

Cocaine can be consumed in a variety of ways: for example, it can be inhaled through the nose, injected into a vein, or taken orally. Cocaine can also be smoked after being processed into what’s known as crack cocaine. Addiction can occur quickly from any of these methods.

What Are the Effects of Cocaine Abuse and Addiction?

For a short time, cocaine creates pleasant feelings in the body. It causes the brain to release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. This dopamine surge is responsible for a transient pleasurable feeling. Cocaine can also minimize the user’s need or desire for sleep and food.

These effects are what make it so difficult to stop. Users begin to crave this feeling, although the high from cocaine lasts for only several minutes to an hour.

Frequent cocaine users and people who use large amounts begin to experience paranoia, panic, hallucinations, aggression, irritability, anxiety, impaired judgement, and repetitive or bizarre behaviors. Impaired judgement can have grave consequences, such as HIV contracted from sharing needles or risky sexual behavior, as well as suicidal or violent thoughts.

Cocaine addiction can cause long-term mental and physical problems. The method of using cocaine determines where the health complications are located. For example, snorting often causes respiratory failure and nosebleeds. Other health complications from cocaine use and addiction include:

  • depression
  • unhealthy weight loss
  • heart arrhythmia
  • increased heart rate
  • heart attack
  • chest pain
  • respiratory diseases
  • seizure
  • stroke
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • headaches
  • weakened immune system
  • hepatitis (common with injections)
  • gangrene of the bowels (common with ingestion)

People who are dependent on cocaine often develop a tolerance that lessens their ability to feel the drug’s effects. This leads to using more, which leads to graver effects on the body.

What Causes Cocaine Addiction?

Cocaine addiction is caused by using cocaine. Cocaine is highly addictive, so even infrequent use can lead to addiction. Changes in the brain from cocaine use, specifically regarding dopamine and the reward system, can bring on addiction.

Who Is at Risk for Cocaine Addiction?

Anyone who uses cocaine is at risk for developing an addiction. The best way to prevent an addiction is to avoid the drug in the first place.

People with a family history of cocaine or other drug dependence and those who grow up in certain social or economic situations could be more at risk. Also, a person who abuses alcohol or other drugs or who has a mental illness may have an increased risk of cocaine dependence.

What Are the Symptoms of Cocaine Addiction?

Signs and symptoms of cocaine dependence and addiction include:

  • a tolerance for the drug, requiring large amounts to get high
  • an inability to stop or reduce usage
  • withdrawal symptoms when usage stops
  • a desire to keep using even when health complications arise
  • a negative impact on quality of life, relationships, and employment
  • spending excessive time and money looking for more cocaine
  • psychosis and hallucinations
  • irritability or anxiety
  • disappearing for binge sessions

How Is Cocaine Addiction Diagnosed?

To diagnose a cocaine addiction, your doctor will discuss your current usage and health history. He or she will try to determine the degree of your dependence and will suggest treatment options. A user who wants treatment will need to commit to stopping.

How Is Cocaine Addiction Treated?

Cocaine addiction is a complex disease, with physical, mental, social, environmental, and familial factors. Treatment plans must address all these components. In some cases, hospitalization may be required during the withdrawal phase.

Medications

While there are no medications designed specifically to treat cocaine addiction, some medications with other purposes can be helpful, such as antidepressants.

Behavior Treatment

Behavior treatments show promising results for helping people with through cocaine addiction. Done either on an outpatient basis or as part of a residential treatment program, interventions focusing on behavior are often used in conjunction with medications. Behavior treatments include motivational incentives (MI), which are rewards for meeting goals related to abstaining from the drug, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches addicts learning processes that help them stay abstinent.

Treatment Facilities

Ranging from several weeks to a year, residential treatment programs work to cover all facets of addiction. These programs often include support groups, vocational rehab, or therapy.

Alternative Therapies

Other solutions to help overcome your addiction include exercise, hypnosis, acupuncture, and herbs, although the safety and efficacy of each is mostly unknown.

What Are the Effects of Cocaine Withdrawal?

Addicted users who attempt to stop using cocaine will undergo an intense initial crash. Effects of cocaine withdrawal include fatigue, hostility, paranoia, anxiety, agitation, sleep disturbances, depression, and other mental challenges. Withdrawal from cocaine can cause intense discomfort, and this can bring about a strong desire to use the drug again.

Even when withdrawal symptoms have subsided, sudden craving are common, especially in situations where using was customary.

What Is the Outlook for Cocaine Addiction?

People who use cocaine are at an increased risk for premature death or serious health complications. Quitting is the only way to minimize or eliminate these risks. Prolonged use leads to tolerance, which requires higher doses to feel the effects. Higher doses increase the user’s risk of death or severe complications, such as psychosis.

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