Cocaine, a central nervous system stimulant derived from the leaves of the coca plant, remains one of the most widely abused and powerfully addictive illicit substances on the American market. Much research and attention have been directed towards the devastating mental health risks associated with cocaine abuse, but perhaps due to its greater reputation as a “psychological addiction” the public is not particularly widely informed about the harm this substance can do to one’s physical health.
Today, we’re going to explore and illustrate cocaine’s relationship to and effects on the body itself.
Depending on the dose, method, and the individual’s mass, metabolism, and tolerance, the high associated with cocaine abuse begins almost instantaneously after taking the drug. After this, the short-term effects of cocaine last until, somewhere before a few minutes to an hour and a half later, the drug is metabolized and wears off.
The elimination half-life of cocaine is short, but during this period it has a potent effect on the way the body functions. Cocaine rushes to the nervous system via the bloodstream where, past the blood-brain barrier, it begins to act on the body’s system for producing and recycling dopamine.
Dopamine is a key chemical messenger in the brain that plays a central role in how we process and record pleasurable feelings. Typically, dopamine is released when the brain experiences positive stimuli, sights, sounds, and feeling that it wants to record, reward and repeat. In the nervous system, dopamine is released by transmitting neurons, registered when it connects to components called dopamine receptors, and then released and returned to the system by dopamine transporters.
Cocaine attaches to the central nervous system’s dopamine transporters. In the short term, this causes the synapse and its adjacent dopamine receptors to become flooded with dopamine, which continues to be released into the system but effectively has no way to exit.
The short-term result of this is easy to predict. Users of cocaine report a euphoric high, or rush of positive emotions. Even small doses of cocaine lead users to experience a short-term wave characterized by feelings of energy, talkativeness, confidence, alertness, and sensitivity to external stimuli.
However, the short-term effects of cocaine are not all mood-related. As a stimulant, cocaine also has pronounced effects on many autonomous bodily functions mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. Once it is in the body, a number of pathways lead cocaine to rapidly increase:
Due to this, it is easy for a high dose of cocaine to result in heart and lung complications and sudden overdose. At the same time, even when this drug doesn’t produce an overdose at the moment, the short-term physiological stress introduced by this strong stimulant to various internal organs can rapidly result in dangerous permanent damage to their tissues and functioning.
Cocaine’s harm to the body is far-reaching – causing soft tissue infections and damage to many of our vital organs. The mode of use affects what is relevant here, with, for example, injected cocaine putting users at particular risk of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, while inhaled cocaine does specific damage to the upper respiratory tract. Here, we’ll break it down by the most profoundly affected physiological systems.
Cocaine, particularly when it is smoked as crack cocaine, is destructive to the tissues of the lungs leading to acute complications such as pulmonary edema and hemorrhaging. At the same time, its effects on blood flow reduce the effectiveness of capillaries as they carry oxygen throughout the body. In the long term, this can increase the chance that users develop health conditions such as pneumonia and asthma.
Snorting cocaine dries out the mucus membranes of the nose and throat, which can lead to chronic inflammation, nosebleeds, and respiratory distress.
Repeated cocaine use raises heart rate and high blood pressure to dangerous levels which inflame the heart. Ultimately this can result in heart disease and muscle necrosis and permanent damage to the heart’s ability to healthily contract and pump blood.
Chronic cocaine abuse also increases the likelihood that users will develop blood clots in already constricted blood vessels, subsequently causing associated heart attacks or stroke events, pulmonary embolism, and deep vein thrombosis.
Meanwhile, injecting cocaine puts users at a unique risk of collapsed veins, as well as blood-borne disease.
At face value, cocaine may seem unrelated to these systems, but in reality binging reduces blood flow and oxygen transmission throughout the body, including to the GI tract. This affects the digestive system’s ability to heal itself and can increase the chances of inflammation, tears, ulcers, and severe bowel decay.
The same process occurs in the liver and kidneys, which can be put at risk of muscle death and serious complications.
Cocaine is abused for its short-term psychological effects, but evidence suggests that tinkering with this key dopamine pathway in the brain can have catastrophic effects when it continues long term.
Binging, taking higher and higher doses, and using a lot of cocaine over a prolonged period can cause the brain to alter its functioning to accommodate the constant influx of dopamine in its central synapses. As a rule, the nervous system alters its processes in an attempt to keep itself in balance, and when regularly flooded with dopamine, it responds by drastically or completely halting the production and transmission of dopamine to its synapses.
This is felt by the individual as an intensely dysphoric, depressed, joyless, and dysregulated mood when the last dose of cocaine finally wears off. While the nervous system seems to eventually return to normal functioning, this can take months without proper treatment. This is the crux of the reason why quitting cocaine cold turkey and trying to enter sobriety without support so often results in relapse – we are functioning without our key motivating neurotransmitter in the period of early recovery.
Acutely toxic levels of cocaine in the body occur when the user takes too high of a dose for the body to eliminate safely.
Because this stimulant speeds up bodily functions, it can rapidly increase key functions such as blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate to dangerous levels. In short, this can lead to internal bleeding in internal organs and the brain, organ failure, seizures, and neurological damage. These are not uncommon events – currently, tens of thousands of people in the US die annually of cocaine overdose, and those that survive this serious complication may live with enduring side effects.
Symptoms and warning signs can be divided into two categories – physiological signs and psychological symptoms.
Physical Symptoms include:
If you are concerned that you or someone you know has developed a physical or psychological dependence on cocaine, it is important to understand that both the long and short-term effects of stimulant abuse can be grave. The potential to do permanent damage to the body occurs from the first use and lingers until the last.
The cycle is hard to break alone, but substance abuse treatment centers across the country are unified in the understanding that one needs to live with cocaine addiction. Addiction treatment is the safest and most effective way to break a cocaine habit and reassert control and agency over your physical and mental health.
At Empower Recovery, we offer flexible, personalized, evidence-based treatment streamlined to suit your needs. Individual therapy options include cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies, as well as coping skills development and personalized relapse prevention therapy – all of which can be done on an outpatient or partial hospitalization basis.
Making the first step and committing to recovery is one of the most important ones we ever make. Reach out to us at 1-855-949-5672 to book a private appointment and start getting help today.
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