Cocaine Abuse

What is cocaine addiction?

Although some people think of cocaine addiction as something from the 1980s, it is actually an ongoing problem in America today. According to a study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an estimated 2.5 million Americans qualified as chronic cocaine users.

Cocaine addiction can happen very quickly and create changes in the brain that result in life-long cravings for the drug.

What exactly is cocaine?

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. It was used as the active ingredient in many medications in the 1900s and in other products like wine and Coca-Cola. The word “cocaine” generally refers to the drug in powder form, but the substance is also found in a crystalized form commonly known as “crack” or freebase cocaine.

The powder form of cocaine is usually snorted, but it can also be ingested by mouth. Some users like to rub it on their gums. Cocaine can also be injected or smoked.


Dealers often cut cocaine with other substances, like corn starch or baking powder, in order to extend their supply. One common cutting agent, levamisole, is a substance often used in deworming livestock. According to the DEA, 77% of all confiscated samples tested contained levamisole. Some people who used cocaine cut with levamisole have been diagnosed with agranulocytosis, which is the destruction of bone marrow. This leaves the afflicted person vulnerable to infections.

Dealers may also combine cocaine with other drugs. For example, a mix of cocaine and heroin is known as a speedball.

Because of the highly addictive nature of cocaine, it is listed as a Schedule II drug in the United States. People caught trafficking cocaine will face harsh penalties and even just possession of it can lead to jail time. The penalties are worse for crack cocaine than for cocaine in powdered form.

How to Recognize Cocaine Addiction

Some signs of cocaine addiction will be different depending upon a specific user’s method of ingestion.

Users who snort cocaine tend to get nosebleeds. They may also have a chronic runny nose or nasal congestion. They could even lose their sense of smell entirely. Long-term use can cause sores in the nose and inflict serious damage to the septum, the dividing wall between the nostrils.

Intravenous users will have injection marks somewhere on their body, usually their arms.

Other signs of cocaine use can occur regardless of the ingestion method. People struggling with cocaine addiction tend to fall into a cycle of getting high followed by devastating lows. This makes some of the signs of cocaine addiction opposite of what you would normally think of with a stimulant. Some of those signs are listed below.


If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms after using cocaine, contact a recovery specialist today.

Health Problems Associated with Cocaine Addiction


According to the most recent figures available from the National Institute of Health, 5,415 people died from cocaine overdose in 2014. That number has gone up by more than 1,000 from where it was just five years before.

Additionally, a 2011 study by the Drug Awareness Warning Network (DAWN) found over 505,000 emergency room visits related to cocaine use, including over 14,000 due to suicide attempts.

These numbers highlight just how dangerous cocaine can be. Plus, with the ease at which people become addicted to cocaine, that danger can be permanent.

How does cocaine affect the brain?

Cocaine affects the brain in several ways. It influences the chemical levels in the brain and even causes physical changes to the brain structure. These changes each play a part in how quickly cocaine becomes addictive and remains addictive for so long.

First, cocaine causes a buildup of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Dopamine also regulates the level of activity for a nerve cell. When a cocaine user experiences elevated levels of dopamine, they get a feeling of euphoria and increased activity in the brain.

Some of the increased brain activity happens in the memory center. This increased memory activity coincides with the euphoria the user feels to generate strong associations between elements of the user’s environment and the feeling he or she is experiencing. Because of those associations, users or former users will be reminded of their “high” simply by being in the same or a similar environment they were when they used. This means that being in the place they used cocaine or being around the people with whom they used cocaine will cause cravings and tempt them to use again.

Cocaine also increases a chemical in nerve cells, called ΔFosB. This chemical is a protein that affects a cell’s ability to copy its DNA and the ability for the brain to repair damaged connections or grow new ones. It has been shown to be associated with addictive behavior. Once present, the chemical persists for up to eight weeks. So, if a person uses cocaine multiple times within those eight weeks, which most addicts will, they will accumulate higher and higher levels of ΔFosB.

Finally, cocaine is associated with stimulating the growth of additional dendrites on some nerve cells. Dendrites are the part of the nerve cells that contain receptors. When enough nerve cells grow additional dendrites, a person may feel hypersensitive to certain stimuli. That heightened sensitivity combined with additional cocaine use can compound the previously discussed effects of cocaine.

In addition to causing addiction, the changes cocaine causes in the brain result in mental and behavioral problems like those listed below.


How does cocaine affect the body?

Cocaine causes changes in the body that can be painful and dangerous. Many of the physical effects are a byproduct of the way cocaine affects the nervous system. These effects can be severe and lead to serious health problems, up to and including death.

Below are some of the ways cocaine affects the body.


People who use cocaine intravenously increase their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS because they tend to be careless about sharing needles when all they want is more cocaine. Compounding this problem, when a person with HIV uses cocaine, the drug accelerates the effects of the disease.

Cocaine Withdrawal Symptoms

Because cocaine creates such a craving for more among those who use it, quitting or reducing cocaine use can be extremely difficult. The withdrawal symptoms add to the difficulty of trying to quit. Although they may not be as physically visible as withdrawal symptoms people experience when coming off alcohol or heroin, the psychological and physiological effects of cocaine withdrawal are real. They can quickly weaken a person’s resolve and send them running back to their dealer.


Financial Costs of Cocaine Addiction


The study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, mentioned above, found Americans spent an estimated $28 billion on cocaine in 2010. The study also had a large degree of variation and reported the estimate could even be as high as $44 billion.

Another element of the study determined heavy cocaine users (those using more than 21 days in a month) spent an average of $1,737 on cocaine per month.

The money spent on the drug itself is only a fraction of the cost of having a cocaine addiction. Cocaine users can also fall victim to healthcare costs associated with their addiction. As previously pointed out, an estimated 505,224 emergency department visits involved cocaine in 2011. According to, the average price for an emergency room visit in 2011 was $1,381. Using those numbers, we can estimate the total cost.


Social Problems Associated with Cocaine Use

Cocaine abuse is associated with many social problems, not just for the user personally, but also society at large.

A 2014 study by the University of Zurich found cocaine users don’t enjoy social interaction as much as non-users do. As a result, they refrain from pursuing social situations. In turn, they fail to develop and/or lose social skills. The publication of the study even suggests social skills be incorporated into treatment programs aimed at cocaine addiction recovery.

In addition to the anti-social behavior caused specifically by cocaine, users will also likely experience the relationship problems commonly associated with any addiction. As addicts become more and more obsessed with getting their next high, they lose interest in other activities and other people. They become completely focused on finding more of their drug of choice. Often, the expense of purchasing the drugs will lead to financial problems. Those financial problems can lead to crime.

Eventually, the drastic actions caused by addiction will turn the person into someone unrecognizable to their friends and family.

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