How Cocaine Affects the Body

How Cocaine Affects the Body

Cocaine is a highly addictive central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that produces intense euphoria, alertness, and energy, as well as adverse effects like restlessness, irritability, anxiety, panic, and paranoia.[1]

Though the intensity and duration may vary, cocaine has potent short-term and long-term effects on the body, some of which can be permanent with chronic use.

What Does Cocaine Do to the Body?

How Cocaine Works

Cocaine stimulates the brain’s reward pathway – the mesolimbic dopamine system –which also responds to food, sex, and other pleasurable stimuli.[2] The pathway is located in the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens of the midbrain.[3] These areas are responsible for not only reinforcement but also emotional regulation.

The brain’s typical communication process releases dopamine from neurons into the synapse – a gap between two neurons – where it can bind to dopamine receptors. It acts as a messenger delivering information from neuron to neuron before being removed by a dopamine transporter and recycled for future use.[4]

Cocaine and other drugs interfere with this communication process by binding to the dopamine transporter, preventing it from removing dopamine. This neurotransmitter then builds up in the synapse, creating an amplified signal to neurons and causing euphoria.[5]

Immediate Effects on the Body

Cocaine is a fast-acting drug with effects that appear almost immediately after the first dose. The high is intense, but it can fade within a few minutes to an hour.

The duration of the euphoric effects depends on how cocaine is used. Methods with faster absorption, such as injecting cocaine or smoking crack cocaine, have an immediate, potent high that’s short lived.[6] Snorting cocaine has a slower onset, but the effects can last up to 30 minutes or longer.

Cocaine has powerful stimulant effects on the body, constricting the blood vessels and raising the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature quickly. This leads the person to feel alert and energetic but can also cause erratic or violent behavior.[7] Some people experience adverse psychological effects like irritability, panic, and paranoia.

Long-Term Effects on the Body

Chronic cocaine use conditions the brain’s reward pathway to the drug itself, rather than natural pleasurable stimuli like food or sex.[8] Then, when cocaine isn’t present, the circuits involved in stress become overly sensitive and lead to bad moods and withdrawal symptoms. As cocaine use is reinforced, the person ignores other natural rewards in search of the drug.

Over time, cocaine use builds tolerance, meaning higher and higher doses or more frequent doses are needed to achieve the same level of pleasure.[9] Though people become less sensitive to the euphoric effects of the drug, they also become more sensitive to some of the adverse effects like anxiety or convulsions. Together, these two effects can increase the risk of overdose.

Cocaine’s intense effects encourage binging, which is when cocaine is used in repeated cycles and higher doses. Tolerance builds quickly, as does the likelihood of irritability, panic attacks, paranoia, and psychosis.[10]

Why Is Cocaine Dangerous?

Though often thought of as safe, cocaine is an extremely dangerous drug that can cause a range of complications in health and life, including heart rhythm disorders, heart attacks, neurological issues, seizures, strokes, coma, and drug addiction.[11]

How dangerous is cocaine? In rare cases, sudden death can occur from the first use of cocaine or shortly after.[12] Usually, this is caused by cardiac arrest or seizures, which are risks with any level of cocaine use.

Cocaine is even more dangerous when it’s combined with other substances, especially opioids or alcohol. Mixing a stimulant like cocaine with a depressant like alcohol or opioids won’t cancel out the effects of each drug. Instead, the effects can mask each other, leading people to take higher amounts and overdose.[13]

Cocaine Addiction and Treatment

Along with the physical effects on the body, cocaine abuse and addiction can significantly impact your quality of life, mental health, and interpersonal relationships. As the addiction becomes more severe, you may find yourself struggling to keep up with responsibilities, withdrawing from social situations, or even getting into trouble with the law.

Cocaine use has indirect risks as well, such as engaging in reckless behavior that could lead to injury, illness, or death. For example, driving a vehicle under the influence can cause a collision and sharing needles or having risky sex could contribute to bloodborne illnesses like HIV or hepatitis.

If you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine abuse or addiction, help is available. Addiction treatment is tailored to your needs but may include medical detox and inpatient or outpatient treatment in a rehab facility.
No matter your individual path, evidence-based behavioral therapies are often involved in the process. Combined with traditional therapies like individual and group counseling or 12-step programs, behavioral therapies are highly effective for treating cocaine addiction.

One of the leading therapies is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an innovative therapy that focuses on awareness of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that contribute to drug use and develops coping strategies to correct them.[14]

Frequently Asked Questions

01

How Does Cocaine Affect the Body?

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Cocaine produces its effects by acting on the central nervous system. This leads to body-wide effects like increased heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature – effects that can be life-threatening on their own. It can also produce adverse psychological effects, including paranoia and violent behaviors.

With chronic use, cocaine can lead to serious complications that affect a range of organs and systems, including the brain, heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system.

02

How Much Cocaine Is Bad for You?

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One of the scariest aspects of cocaine use is that its effects aren’t necessarily dependent on the dose.[15] People can experience sudden cardiac arrest or seizures with small doses and occasional use, while others may use increasingly larger doses of cocaine with fewer effects. But to be clear, no amount of cocaine – either in dose or frequency – is “good for you.”

03

Is Cocaine Deadly?

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Yes, cocaine can be deadly. There are many factors that influence the effects of cocaine, so it’s extremely difficult to predict how powerful and dangerous the effects will be for any individual.

04

What Are the Effects of Snorting Cocaine?

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Snorting cocaine has a slower onset of effects, but they last longer. In addition to the broad effects of cocaine on the body, snorting cocaine has use-specific effects and complications like nosebleeds, damage to the nasal cavity, loss of smell, frequent sinusitis, and “cocaine nose,” a condition that involves nose deformities and possible collapse.[16]

Sources
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[01]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, May 2). What is cocaine?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-cocaine on 2023, July 11.

[02]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 11). How does cocaine produce its effects?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects on 2023, July 11

[03]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 11). How does cocaine produce its effects?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects on 2023, July 11

[04]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 11). How does cocaine produce its effects?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects on 2023, July 11

[05]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 11). How does cocaine produce its effects?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects on 2023, July 11

[06]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[07]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[08]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[09]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[10]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[11]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[12]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[13]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021b, June 13). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use on 2023, July 11.

[14]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020b, June 11). How is cocaine addiction treated?. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-treatments-are-effective-cocaine-abusers on 2023, July 11.

[15]

Heard, K., Palmer, R., & Zahniser, N. R. (2008). Mechanisms of acute cocaine toxicity. The open pharmacology journal. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2703432/ on 2023, July 11.

[16]

PN;, G. B. (n.d.). Correction of cocaine-related nasal defects. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18317151/ on 2023, July 11.

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