What Is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a stimulant made from the leaves of the cocoa plant. Generally, cocaine comes as a white powder that can be dissolved in water, but it is also available as a liquid. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), cocaine abuse has remained stable, in the U.S., since 2009.
Another survey, which monitors teen attitudes on drug use, reports a significant decline in the prevalence of powder cocaine use amount 8th, 10th, and 12th graders from peak use in the late 1990s.
Although misuse of cocaine has remained stable in the past few years, the number of individuals who still struggle with cocaine addiction is still significant. According to NSDUH, in 2014 about 913,000 Americans met the diagnostic criteria for dependence or abuse of cocaine in any form.
Cocaine is a strong stimulant that makes the signals between the brain and body move faster. This results in an increased sense of alertness and physical activity. Cocaine causes the brain to be flooded with a rapid-release of dopamine, a hormone involved in mood and thinking processes.
Signs And Symptoms Of Cocaine Abuse
The immediate and intense cocaine high lasts about 15 to 30 minutes, if the drug is snorted. If cocaine is smoked, the high can last approximately five to 10 minutes. The residual effects, no matter the method of use, can last for one to two hours.
Short-term effects of cocaine abuse may include:
- constricted blood vessels
- dilated pupils
- increased temperature, heart rate and blood pressure
- increased stress on the heart and circulatory system
- increased energy and alertness (hyperstimulation)
- decreased appetite
- restlessness and insomnia
- anxiety and paranoia
- increased possibility of risky behaviors that may lead to sexually transmitted diseases (HIV and hepatitis by sharing needles)
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Cocaine abuse can turn into addiction. With repeated use, it is possible to become physically and mentally dependent on the drug. Once this happens, individuals are no longer able to control their use of the drug, and their bodies have convinced them they need the drug to function.
Prolonged cocaine abuse can cause a number of other health issues. Some long-term effects of cocaine abuse may include:
- convulsions and seizures
- heart disease, heart attack and stroke
- lung damage and disease (respiratory failure and difficulty breathing)
- damage to the nasal septum (snorting)
- irritability and mood disturbances
- auditory and tactile hallucinations
- sexual dysfunction (men and women)
- reproductive damage and infertility
- sudden death – even with the first use
Once tolerance to cocaine has formed, more frequent and larger doses are needed in order to feel the same effects a smaller dose once produced. If someone tries to stop using cocaine after a tolerance has developed, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Cocaine withdrawal symptoms can include:
- strong cravings for cocaine
- mood swings that can make an individual feel depressed, agitated or anxious
- inability to concentrate
- physical reactions such as headaches, aches and pain, increased appetite, not sleeping well
Paraphernalia can also be an indication that someone is abusing or addicted to cocaine. Objects like needles for injection, rolled-up pieces of paper for snorting, or powdered covered, flat surfaces may indicate a problem with cocaine.
How Cocaine Affects The Brain
Cocaine is a strong central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that interferes with communication pathways in the brain by rapidly releasing excessive amounts of dopamine hormone.
Dopamine is a hormone that is strongly influential on pleasure sensations and movement through the brain’s reward center. Cocaine is particularly addictive because it alters the brain’s sense of reward and punishment.
As individuals use cocaine more frequently, a buildup of dopamine occurs in the brain and causes constant stimulation (a sense of reward) while the drug is still effective. Once the drug wears off, however, the extreme drop (or lack of sense of reward) causes individuals to crave more of the drug.
Some research also found that cocaine abuse may also affect the levels of corticosterone in the brain. Corticosterone is a stress hormone that can be higher in people who are constantly stressed out. The research also indicated that individuals with higher natural levels of corticosterone in their systems where more sensitive to low doses of cocaine.
This increased sensitivity to the effects of cocaine may be a contributing factor to why cocaine is such an addictive substance. When people are stressed, cocaines effects may seem even more relaxing and powerful. This finding could also reflect why some individuals experience more intense cravings for cocaine than others.
When abused for a long time, cocaine can cause the deterioration of white brain matter in the frontal lobe. This is significant because the frontal lobe of the brain is the self-control center and when it becomes deregulated, addictive behaviors can worsen.
Dangers Of Cocaine Abuse
Dangers of cocaine abuse include potentially fatal overdose and uncomfortable withdrawal. When someone takes too much cocaine for their system to handle, the effects of the drug are put into hyperdrive. Hyperactivity of the heart can lead to potentially lethal side effects like:
- irregularities in heart rhythm (arrhythmias)
- severely elevated heart rates (tachycardia)
- extremely high blood pressure, leading to stroke
- dangerously high body temperature
- sweating and nausea
- confusion and psychosis
- severe anxiety or agitation
- tremors and seizures
The chances of someone overdosing on cocaine can be difficult to predict because it is influenced by several factors. These include the method of use, the purity of the cocaine, an individual’s tolerance of to the drug, and if another substance was used in with cocaine.
It is very possible for someone misusing cocaine for the first time to experience a fatal overdose from the drug.
Cocaine Use In Pregnant Women
Most women who are addicted to cocaine are of childbearing age, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is also estimated that about five percent of pregnant women use one of more addictive substances and that there are about 750,000 cocaine-exposed pregnancies every year.
Due to the negative social stigma surrounding cocaine use by pregnant women, and fear of losing their children, many women are unwilling to report their substance use disorders. This can potentially lead to specific risks, including reduced appropriate, prenatal care.
Cocaine use during pregnancy has been associated with maternal migraines and seizures, premature water break, and separation of the placental from the lining of the uterus (miscarriage).
Normal cardiovascular changes in pregnant women can be increased by cocaine use. Sometimes, this can cause serious issues like severely high blood pressure, spontaneous miscarriage, preterm labor, and difficult delivery. To reduce these risks, formal treatment for cocaine addiction should be considered necessary.
Cocaine And Polydrug Abuse
It is also more likely for people to engage in polydrug use while abusing cocaine. According to Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), 56 percent of all emergency admittance (12 years and older) in 2012, reported cocaine as a primary substance of abuse seven percent of the time, and as a secondary substance of abuse 14 percent of the time. Mixing substances can severely increase the risk of negative side effects, such as fatal overdose.
Treatment For Cocaine Addiction
Treatment for cocaine addiction begins with detoxing from the drug. The cocaine detox process can last between one to three weeks, and can very difficult for individuals to overcome on their own. Formal treatment for cocaine addiction should take into consideration the wide range of social, familial, and other environmental factors that lead to cocaine addiction.
There are currently no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved medications to treat cocaine addiction. However, many behavioral treatments, like contingency management, have been used to treat cocaine addiction with great success.
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