Cocaine: Description of the Substance

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant and a considerably addictive type of drug. While cocaine has an extensive history of being used as a local anesthetic to reduce pain, it’s primary use today is as a recreational drug. Cocaine is illegal in the United States, and yet the U.S. is the largest consumer of the drug worldwide.

Cocaine is derived from from the leaves of the coca plant – coca is essentially one of four cultivated plants belonging to the family Erythroxylaceae – which is native to South America.

Cocaine Addiction Statistics

The % risk of developing a cocaine dependency within 2 years of 1st use is:
The % risk of developing a cocaine dependency 10+ years out from 1st use is:
The % of cocaine addicts that turn to other substances (i.e., medication, alcohol, etc.) after giving up cocaine is:
While still being carefully studied and validated, it is thought that the % of cocaine addicts who RELAPSE after quitting on their own (no help, no rehab) is as high as:

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Cocaine acts on the mesoaccumbens dopamine (DA) pathway of the midbrain. This pathway is often referred to as the “reward pathway” because it is the part of your brain that gets activated when experiencing pleasure (i.e., the kind you get when eating, having sex, or being praised).

In the DA pathway of a normal human being, a transmitting neuron releases dopamine (essentially a neurotransmitter) that binds to dopamine receptors on a receiving neuron. After the binding has occurred, the transmitting cell’s dopamine reuptake transporters (DATs) pump the dopamine back into the cell so it can be used again.

Cocaine binds to the dopamine reuptake transporters and prevents normal function. The result is an increase in dopamine levels within the synapses. Receiving neurons will be continuously stimulated. Repetitive firing of the neurons creates feelings of euphoria in the cocaine user. In addicted individuals, cocaine blocks between 60 and 77 percent of the DAT binding sites; in order to attain a “high,” at least 47 percent of the binding sites must be blocked by cocaine.

Cocaine also acts on the reuptake transporters of serotonin and norepinephrine, and therefore, the levels of these neurotransmitters are also increased. (2). Serotonin plays a role similar to dopamine in the DA pathway. Norepinephrine stimulates the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system characterized by heightened heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and body temperature as well as dilation of pupils and sweating; these phenomena produce an energizing feeling.

Signs & Symptoms of Cocaine Abuse / Addiction

The signs and symptoms of cocaine abuse or addiction tend to vary depending on how the cocaine is ingested. As it pertains to powder-form cocaine, which is usually snorted in through the nose or dissolved in a water solution for injection underneath the skin (to increase the intensity or duration of the high), there are a number of typical signs and symptoms that include:

  • Restlessness, irritability, paranoia, or high anxiety
  • Sense of smell is reduced or lost completely
  • The user gets frequent nosebleeds
  • Drymouth or difficulty swallowing, or both
  • Raspy voice or hoarseness
  • Persistent runny nose, even when not using cocaine.

There is another form of cocaine called crack. The crack form of cocaine is generally available in a rock-type crystal form and ingested by smoking it through a pipe alone or in combination with other drugs. Crack cocaine is of a lower quality/purity than powder-form cocaine and may introduce any of a variety of other dangerous chemical compounds into the body when used. Long-term crack cocaine users often exhibit some of the same symptoms that powdered cocaine users do, buy many will exhibit more dramatic symptoms as a result of dependence and addiction to crack.

Users of crack cocaine may also present symptoms such as radical changes in social behavior and personality that only compound with more and more frequent use:

  • Significant loss of inhibitions
  • Increased risk-taking or obliviousness to dangerous circumstances
  • Aggression and/or violent behavior
  • Developing a significant tolerance
  • Suffering through difficult withdrawal
  • Emotional instabilities, and even breaking the law.

Cocaine: Health Risks

Individuals who are coping with cocaine addiction and dependency are at increased risk for a wide variety of physical, mental, behavioral and emotional problems. We have already spoken about some of the behavioral changes that cocaine addicted or dependent individuals may experience, such as risk-taking, lack of awareness to dangers, and aggressive behavior, and others. Here are some of the physical health risks to cocaine abuse, particularly long-term use:

  • Heart problems, and in particular heart attacks
  • Respiratory problems, even total respiratory failure
  • Problems within the nervous system and the possibility of stroke
  • Those who inject cocaine are at increased risk for infections, HIV, and disease
  • Abnormal digestion
  • Oral ingestion of cocaine can produce mouth ulcers, stomach ulcers, or even tissue death the bowel
  • Skin problems
  • Allergic responses, sometimes quite severe
  • There is always a risk of death.

Furthermore, long-term use and abuse of cocaine is never a prerequisite for stroke and heart attack. The moral of the story is this: it doesn’t matter how cocaine is ingested or how frequently it is used — the health risks are always very serious, and cocaine-related death is a potential outcome that any user could face.


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