Cocaine is a drug that’s derived from a naturally occurring plant. While it has some medical uses, it’s mostly used as a recreational drug that delivers a potent, stimulating high. The drug can cause some intense psychological symptoms when it’s used for recreation, but it can also have an impact on your body.
As a recreational drug, cocaine can be snorted or rubbed into the gums. It may also be converted to its freebase form called crack cocaine, which can be smoked. While different routes of administration offer some different effects, each method delivers a potent, short-lived high. Illicit cocaine can also have unpredictable additives, including inert fillers and potent active chemicals. High doses of cocaine can cause an overdose that has toxic effects on the body. Overdose can be deadly, but when it’s not, it can cause some lasting consequences.
The opioid crisis has drawn media attention in the past few years, and for a good reason. However, cocaine continues to be a problem all over the United States. In some areas, it’s a bigger problem than opioids. But how does cocaine affect your body, and what are its long-term effects? Learn more about cocaine’s effects on multiple aspects of your body.
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a naturally occurring chemical that can be found in the leaves of two species of plants that are native to South America. The leaves can be chewed for increased energy and excitement, which is a common practice in cultures around the plant’s native areas. Cocaine is also isolated from the plant and sold in crystal and powder forms. As an illicit drug, cocaine causes intense, stimulating euphoria, feelings of empowerment, and increased energy.
Cocaine was once used as a prescription medication, especially as a numbing agent. Today, it’s sometimes used in nasal duct surgeries or as a local anesthetic. In the United States, it’s a federally controlled substance and classified as a Schedule II drug, which means that it’s recognized to have a significant abuse potential along with accepted medical uses.
The drug is highly addictive, causing severe substance use disorders in people that use the drug consistently over several days or weeks. Cocaine addiction is extremely difficult to overcome, especially without professional help.
Cocaine can also cause chemical dependence and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal usually isn’t life-threatening, but it can cause fatigue, hypersomnia, depression, anhedonia, and suicidal thoughts.
How Does Cocaine Work?
Cocaine can have profound effects on the brain and body. As a psychoactive drug, it makes its way to your bloodstream and then to your brain where it alters chemical messaging. When cocaine is snorted, you can feel its effects almost immediately. The euphoric high is brief, lasting only a few minutes. Depending on the route of administration, it could last between five to 30 minutes. After that, you may continue to feel the drug’s effects in your brain, and body during the comedown period. This may involve some unpleasant symptoms like restlessness, anxiety, and paranoia.
Cocaine primarily works in the brain by influencing a naturally-occurring chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is one of your brain’s “feel-good chemicals,” which are neurotransmitters that are designed to improve mood and make you feel pleasure. Dopamine is closely tied to pleasure, reward, and motivation. Dopamine is released into your system naturally throughout the day, especially during activities that bring you joy and excitement. It binds to receptors to make you feel stimulated and excited. Then, it’s removed and recycled through a process called reuptake. However, cocaine can block this process, causing a buildup of the chemical that has more profound effects.
Long-term use of cocaine can affect how your body processes the drug. First, your brain starts to get used to it, balancing brain chemistry around the presence of the drug. You may produce fewer dopamine receptors, which leads to tolerance and the diminishing effects of the drug. It may also be more difficult to derive pleasure from other sources. The intense and short-lived nature of cocaine use can also encourage binge use, which can make addiction more likely.
The Effects of Cocaine on the Body
Cocaine can have profound effects on your brain and chemical messaging system, but it can also have some significant effects on your body. Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant, meaning that it increases activity in the central nervous system. The stimulating qualities have intense psychological, mood-lifting effects, but they can also have some profound effects on some of the unconscious functions of your nervous system. Cocaine can cause physical symptoms like an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. It can also cause tremors, nausea, dilated pupils, and seizures.
Cocaine can also cause some long-term physical effects after chronic use. Snorting cocaine can lead to some specific effects on your nose, throat, and nasal passageways. Chronic snorting can cause nosebleeds, issues with swallowing, and hoarseness. It can also irritate the nasal septum, which can lead to infections, chronic inflammation, and chronic runny nose.
How Does Cocaine Affect Your Heart?
Some of cocaine’s most concerning effects have to do with your heart. Cocaine can increase your blood pressure and heart rate while you’re taking it. In high doses, it can put a temporary strain on your heart, causing hypertension and cardiac arrhythmias. You may experience tachycardia, heart palpitations, and chest pains. However, cocaine can also be cardiotoxic, leading to lasting damage. Some long-lasting effects cocaine can have on your heart include inflammation of the heart muscle, aortic ruptures, and impairment of the heart’s ability to contract. Cocaine use is also associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. For that reason, cocaine users are frequently hospitalized with chest pains and heart-related symptoms.
Why Does Cocaine Cause Malnourishment?
Cocaine users often become malnourished and need medical care, especially when they first enter a treatment program. This is often due to the fact that cocaine acts as an appetite suppressant. Cocaine, like many stimulants, suppresses feelings of hunger and appetite. Methamphetamines, prescriptions, stimulants, and even caffeine can have similar effects. This can cause you to lose weight while you’re taking cocaine, and it can even lead to dangerous weight loss and malnutrition. Addiction, in general, may cause you to prioritize finding and taking a drug over other important activities, including eating enough and personal hygiene. People that are seeking addiction treatment and have stimulant use disorders are often underweight and have issues related to malnutrition like anemia.
How Does Cocaine Affect Your Body Temperature?
One of the functions of your brain is to control your body temperature. Like other automatic functions of your nervous system, cocaine can increase your body temperature, causing fevers and sweating. A very high body temperature can be dangerous. It can lead to dehydration, and the heat can actually damage some of your internal organs, including your brain, heart, and kidneys. If your body temperature is too high for too long, it can cause a stroke, coma, or death.
How Does Cocaine Affect Your Bowels?
Cocaine can increase blood pressure and reduce blood flow in certain parts of your body, especially your gastrointestinal tract. Cocaine can cause ulcers and tears in the intestines that lead to serious damage and medical problems. In some cases, chronic cocaine use can lead to life-threatening bowel issues.
How Does Cocaine Affect Your Lungs?
Cocaine can cause some immediate effects on your lungs just by increasing nervous system activity. As your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing may quicken. However, cocaine use can also negatively impact your lungs, especially when crack cocaine is smoked. Smoking crack can result in what’s commonly called “crack lung,” which can include respiratory problems, chronic cough, pulmonary hemorrhage, labored breathing, and fluid in the lungs.
It can also cause severe problems like pneumothorax, which is when air enters the chest outside your lungs, which can collapse your lungs.
How Dangerous is a Cocaine Overdose?
Cocaine can cause dangerous, life-threatening symptoms when it’s taken in doses that are too high. A cocaine overdose can be more likely during a drug binge and when cocaine is mixed with other substances. Mixing cocaine with alcohol or opioids can mask some of its effects, making you believe you can handle higher doses.
During an overdose, you may experience several common symptoms, including:
- High blood pressure
- High temperature
In severe cases of overdose, you can experience a heart attack, irregular heartbeats, stroke, seizures, and breathing difficulty. If you see the signs of an overdose in yourself or someone else, call for emergency services as soon as possible.