Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Addiction

A coke high may last for only a matter of minutes, but the effects of cocaine addiction can last a lifetime. This highly addictive drug is extracted from a South American plant, the Erythroxylum coca, whose leaves have been chewed or brewed in tea for centuries in indigenous cultures. The cocaine that’s sold on the streets is a highly purified derivative of this plant. Snorting, injecting or smoking cocaine can cause a surge of euphoria, physical energy and self-confidence. But repeated use of cocaine can quickly lead to dependence, addiction and a host of dangerous consequences for your health.

In spite of its devastating long-term effects, cocaine abuse continues in the United States. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that cocaine was one of the three most widely abused illicit drugs in that year, with just over one million American adults reporting abuse or dependence. In that same year, 639,000 Americans age 12 and older tried cocaine for the first time. This figure amounts to almost 2,000 new users per day.

Recreational cocaine use may seem glamorous and exhilarating, but addiction to this drug can cause serious health complications.

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that elevates your heart rate, respiration rate and body temperature, while constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure. Over time, this excessive stimulation can damage the circulatory system, compromising the health of your heart and brain. Heart attack, respiratory failure and stroke are among the leading causes of cocaine-related death.

Because cocaine interferes with the brain’s natural regulation of the chemicals that affect your moods and energy levels, it’s not easy to give up this powerful drug.  Even those users who break free from addiction are at risk of a relapse for years after their recovery.

If you’re fighting an addiction to cocaine, or you know someone who’s in danger of becoming addicted, it’s never too early — or too late — to seek help. Cocaine addiction treatment programs offer the support you need to recover your health and lead a balanced, fulfilling life.

Effects on the Brain

brain cellsCocaine has a direct effect on the central nervous system, which includes your brain and spinal cord. When you use cocaine, your brain rapidly absorbs the drug from your bloodstream. If you smoke rock cocaine (a practice known as freebasing) or inject the drug, you’ll feel its effects in as little as five minutes. If you snort the drug in powder form, it will take a few minutes longer for your brain to react. However, when you take cocaine by any route, the drug will start to alter your brain chemistry very rapidly.

Your brain has its own natural reward system for reinforcing healthy, life-sustaining behaviors. Activities like eating, staying warm or making love stimulate the production of messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters. When these chemicals — which include dopamine, serotonin, GABA and other neurotransmitters – interact with receptor cells in your brain, they reward you with feelings of contentment, relaxation or happiness. Once the neurotransmitters have exerted their positive effects, their levels return to normal.

When you use cocaine, the drug interferes with this natural cycle by blocking the brain’s reabsorption of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Instead of returning to normal, dopamine levels remain high, so the brain is flooded with this feel-good chemical. Instead of making you feel happy or content, as you might after enjoying a delicious meal with someone you love, cocaine can make you feel ecstatic. And because cocaine also affects serotonin and norepinephrine, you may experience an elevated mood and increased energy levels. Cocaine addicts report that the drug makes them feel more powerful, self-confident, sexually attractive and mentally focused.

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But the long-term results of cocaine addiction are much less positive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the brain structure of cocaine users clearly differs from the brain structure of non-users. Brain scans show that over time, cocaine users lose the cells that respond to dopamine, which means that their ability to experience pleasure in normal, daily activities is greatly reduced. This condition, known as anhedonia (or absence of pleasure) can lead to depression, self-isolation and increased cravings for cocaine.

Many recovering cocaine addicts relapse because they can’t tolerate the sense of emptiness that they feel when they’re drug-free. Unfortunately, because the brain becomes tolerant to the effects of cocaine, the drug may no longer produce those sensations of euphoria and power. Instead, those feelings are replaced by anxiety, restlessness, depression and — in some cases — thoughts of suicide. Ultimately, cocaine addiction can rob you of your basic need to find joy in day-to-day life.

Damage to the Body

Cocaine exerts its effects on all of the body’s systems. As a vasoconstrictor, it causes the blood vessels to tighten and narrow, restricting the flow of blood to the vital organs.

When you use the drug, vasoconstriction causes your heart rate to accelerate and your blood pressure to rise. Cocaine abuse can disrupt your normal heartbeat, causing a dangerous condition called an arrhythmia. Blood flow to your brain is restricted, increasing your risk of severe headaches, seizures and stroke. Even young adults have been the victims of cocaine-related strokes or heart attacks. According to the Postgraduate Medical Journal, long-term cocaine use can cause permanent harm to the vessels that supply blood to the brain, creating changes in the brain’s size and structure and increasing the likelihood of a stroke.

In addicts who smoke or snort cocaine, the drug can cause tremendous harm to the respiratory system. From the nasal passages, sinuses and oral membranes to the lungs, the respiratory tissues can be damaged or destroyed. Repeatedly snorting cocaine can cause nosebleeds, sinus congestion and even perforations in the septum, which separates the nostrils.

While smoking and snorting cocaine can damage the respiratory tract, intravenous injection poses its own set of health hazards. IV cocaine users are at risk of exposure to blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Bacterial infections and abscesses at the injection site are also common in IV drug abusers.

The digestive organs, kidneys and reproductive organs are also affected by long-term cocaine abuse. Cocaine addicts can experience gastrointestinal bleeding caused by ulcers or perforations in the stomach or intestinal tract. Addicts are at high risk of kidney damage, kidney failure and sexual impotence because of the way the drug restricts blood circulation.

Cocaine and Mental Illness

Like other psychoactive drugs, cocaine can alter your perception of reality. Long-term cocaine users may experience serious psychiatric side effects, including delusions, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, long-term cocaine abuse can produce a form of psychosis that resembles paranoid schizophrenia. In a study of cocaine users admitted to a rehab facility for treatment, over half reported experiencing episodes of drug-induced paranoia. The men in the group were more likely to have experienced these episodes than women, and 90 percent of the men reported having psychotic delusions associated with cocaine abuse.

Cocaine users who suffer from drug-induced paranoia are typically heavy users with a long history of addiction.

Acute episodes may involve:

  • Visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Irrational fears about being harmed or harming someone else
  • Aggressive or destructive behaviors
  • Delusional thinking

Psychosis and paranoia aren’t the only psychiatric disorders associated with cocaine abuse. Science Daily reports that according to a study conducted by scientists at the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Michigan, chronic cocaine use may cause permanent damage to the brain cells that regulate mood and produce feelings of pleasure. These neurological changes could be responsible for the increased rate of depression among long-term cocaine users.

Legal and Financial Consequences

legalUnder the Controlled Substances Act, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning that it is considered a dangerous substance with a high potential for abuse and addiction. Cocaine abuse is not only dangerous to your health – it’s illegal. The possession or distribution of cocaine can lead to severe legal problems, including fines, loss of child custody, jail time and imprisonment. Domestic violence and child abuse are common among cocaine users. Countless families have been torn apart by the effects of this drug.

Because the euphoric rush of a cocaine high is so short-lived, users often take multiple doses in a short period of time in order to prolong the sensations. A cocaine binge can devastate your finances as well as your physical and mental health. Heavy users have been known to spend thousands of dollars on cocaine in a single binge episode, forfeiting their material security and their financial future for the sake of a rush.

Hope for Recovery

Cocaine addiction is a complicated disorder, involving neurological, psychological and social factors. Many cocaine addicts also abuse substances like alcohol, heroin, meth and prescription narcotics, making rehab even more challenging.

The longer you’ve been using cocaine, the more intensive your treatment must be in order to overcome this deadly disease.

The Canyon offers residential treatment for cocaine users seeking a way out of the trap of addiction. With a highly trained clinical staff and an extensive range of recovery services, we provide hope for the most hard-to-treat substance use disorders. In addition, we specialize in helping individuals with co-occurring disorders cope with mental illness. To find out more about our exclusive recovery facilities in Malibu and Santa Monica, California, call our admissions coordinators today. We’re here to give you the support you need to overcome cocaine addiction and build a healthy, positive future.