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How Addictive Is Cocaine?

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 28, 2019

Cocaine is a highly addictive and illegal stimulant that can cause a number of adverse and long-term effects. A formal treatment program will likely be needed to overcome a cocaine addiction.

Cocaine is an incredibly addictive and dangerous illegal stimulant. This drug is classified as a Schedule II substance in the United States, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and addiction.

Cocaine addiction is a serious problem in the U.S. In 2013, around 1.5 million people ages 12 and older reportedly used cocaine. In 2009, cocaine was responsible for more than 400,000 emergency room visits.

Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant commonly found in South America. This drug is most often sold as a fine white powder on the street. It may be mixed with additives such as flour, cornstarch, or talcum powder to allow sellers to produce more product.

Popular names for cocaine include rock, crack, coke, blow, and snow. People use cocaine by snorting, injecting, or smoking it as well as rubbing it onto the gums.

No matter how cocaine is used, this substance is highly addictive and can have a number of negative side effects.

How Does Cocaine Work?

Cocaine works by increasing the dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is part of the movement and reward systems.

Typically, dopamine is released in the brain and then recycled back. Cocaine prevents the dopamine from recycling and causes a flood of the neurotransmitter in the brain. This high level of dopamine activates the reward system in the brain and reinforces the positive effects of the drug.

Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to the high levels of dopamine created by cocaine. This can cause low levels of sensitivity, resulting in a tolerance to be built up. As a result, people will need to take more of the drug to feel the same effect.

Using cocaine in higher doses and more frequently can cause a person to become mentally and physically dependent on the drug to feel normal. This can result in addiction.

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How Do People Become Addicted To Cocaine?

Cocaine can affect the brain after one use. Often times, the first time cocaine is used is the most intense. Thus, a tolerance to the drug can be built up almost immediately.

Tolerance can lead to people using more of the drug more often to experience the same intensity and pleasure. The more the drug is used, the higher the tolerance level and chances of addiction.

Additionally, cocaine has a short half-life. This means that the high felt from the drug comes on quickly — typically within 30 minutes or less after taking it. However, a short half-life also means that the drug’s effects last for a shorter amount of time.

People will often feel cocaine’s effects dissipate after one to three hours of taking the drug. When the drug wears off, many people feel the “crash” associated with cocaine. Symptoms of a cocaine crash can include agitation, fatigue, depression, and increased appetite.

To avoid this crash, many people will binge on the drug, or take multiple doses in a short period of time. This pattern of binging can escalate tolerance and dependence to the drug as well as increase the risk of addiction.

Risk Factors Associated With Cocaine Addiction

While cocaine is certainly addictive, not everyone will become addicted to the drug. There are certain factors that may contribute to an increased risk of cocaine addiction.

These factors include:

  • genetics
  • upbringing
  • access to cocaine
  • history of drug use
  • socioeconomic status
  • age and gender
  • mental illness

Additionally, people with low self-esteem and a family history of addiction are more likely to become addicted to cocaine. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety also put people at an increased risk of addiction.

Side Effects Of Cocaine Abuse And Addiction

Cocaine abuse and addiction can have a number of negative side effects. The more cocaine a person uses, the more likely he or she is to experience the consequences of cocaine abuse.

Side effects associated with cocaine abuse and addiction include:

  • high blood pressure
  • cardiovascular problems including heart failure
  • constricted blood vessels
  • stomach problems
  • malnourishment
  • increased heart rate
  • psychosis, including paranoia and hallucinations
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • depression
  • stroke
  • dilated pupils

Long-term effects of cocaine abuse and addiction may include:

  • nosebleeds
  • loss of smell
  • respiratory problems
  • higher risk of infections
  • severe bowel decay
  • reduced blood flow
  • asthma
  • trouble swallowing
  • increased risk of bloodborne diseases
  • movement disorders
  • seizures
  • sexual dysfunction

Signs Of Cocaine Addiction

People who are addicted to cocaine often exhibit a number of signs that are noticeable to others. The more severe a person’s addiction, the more likely he or she is to display these signs.

Addiction to cocaine can result in:

  • antisocial behaviors
  • strained relationships
  • problems at work or school
  • lying about using cocaine
  • hiding cocaine use
  • financial struggles
  • legal trouble
  • loss of enjoyment in things that used to bring pleasure

Getting Treatment For Cocaine Addiction

If you or a loved one is addicted to cocaine, seeking treatment is the best way to prevent the negative effects of cocaine abuse and addiction. Most people will require formal treatment to overcome an addiction to cocaine.

Behavioral therapy coupled with an intensive treatment program is often used to treat cocaine addiction. Behavioral therapy may include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational incentives, 12-step programs, and drug-free communities.

To learn more about the addictive nature of cocaine and treatment options for treating cocaine addiction, contact our treatment specialists today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Nationwide Trends

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Drug-Related Hospital Emergency Room Visits

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Cocaine

VeryWell Mind - Understand Cocaine Addiction

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