Long-Term Effects Of Cocaine Abuse

Long-term cocaine use can damage the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain. The longer someone uses cocaine, the higher their risk for permanent negative consequences.

Cocaine is an addictive stimulant drug that wreaks havoc on the body and mind with prolonged use. Since its effects do not last long, many people take cocaine in overlapping doses to maintain the feeling of euphoria that it produces. Some individuals binge on cocaine until they are exhausted, then they crash, sleeping for an unusually long time to recuperate.

During a cocaine binge, the heart works hard to produce high levels of energy for a long time and lack of sleep prevents the normal physical process of recovery. This can lead to the weakening of the immune system, deterioration of organ function, and additional damage from different modes of intake.

Long-Term Effects Of Cocaine Abuse

How someone takes cocaine determines what type of additional long-term effects they may have. Each mode of intake for cocaine comes with its own risks, namely:

  • Snorting causes damage to the inside of the nose, throat, and lungs that can result in nosebleeds, erosion of nasal tissue, hoarse voice, and sore throat.
  • Injecting leaves “track marks,” dark areas or abscesses where a needle is repeatedly used. It may also cause bacterial skin infections and spread disease through shared needles.
  • Smoking irritates the lungs. Crack cocaine, which is usually smoked, is notorious for causing chest pains (angina) that drive many people to the emergency room.
  • Rubbing on gums is harmful to gum tissue and may lead to lesions, ulcers, and damaged bone.

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Long-Term Effects Of Cocaine On The Body

The binge-and-crash pattern is not the only reason that cocaine weakens the immune system. Many people who become addicted to the drug disregard personal hygiene and healthy eating as drug use takes over their lives. Stimulant drugs suppress appetite, so many individuals who use cocaine for a long time lose an unhealthy amount of weight, which impairs immune function.

A compromised immune system puts a person at higher risk for contracting diseases and makes it harder for them to heal from illness. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that diseases like HIV worsen at a more rapid rate in individuals who use cocaine than in those who do not.

Some people who use cocaine heavily have tactile hallucinations that bugs are crawling beneath their skin (called “coke bugs”). Scratching at these imaginary creatures causes sores that may never heal because of the constant irritation and poor immune function.

Prolonged cocaine use is also linked to sexual dysfunction and infertility in both men and women. The more cocaine someone uses, the more likely they are to experience negative consequences in many areas of their body and mind.

Cocaine And The Heart

The heart is particularly affected by cocaine use. As a stimulant drug, cocaine speeds up the heart and raises blood pressure. Over time, this can result in permanent changes. High blood pressure (hypertension) is the cause of many heart problems such as coronary artery disease.

Cocaine use may lead to a heart attack or irregular heartbeat. It can also cause decreased blood flow, blood clots in the heart and lungs, and weakening of the heart muscle.

Cocaine And The Lungs

Crack cocaine is damaging to the lungs, as most people use it by smoking. “Crack lung” is a condition marked by fever, low blood oxygen, respiratory failure, and coughing up blood or black phlegm.

Cocaine contributes to many other lung problems as well, including:

  • respiratory troubles
  • lung disease
  • thickening or scarring of connective tissues
  • narrowed, blocked, or destroyed arteries
  • ruptured blood vessels
  • worsening of asthma
  • large air pockets (emphysema)

Cocaine And The Liver

Since cocaine narrows blood vessels, it can cause insufficient blood flow to the liver, which kills liver cells. Liver injury can also result from high body temperature, an effect of prolonged cocaine use. Cocaine is processed by the liver and has been known to cause hepatotoxicity, or liver damage, especially when taken in high amounts.

Cocaine And The Kidneys

Cocaine can damage veins, blood vessels, and cells in the kidneys. This can lead to kidney failure, a serious condition that may result in death. High blood pressure that results from cocaine use can also cause kidney disease.

Cocaine And The Gastrointestinal System

Abdominal pain and nausea are possible short-term effects of cocaine use. With prolonged use, these issues can become more severe and lead to ulcers as well as tears in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This may allow the contents of the intestine to leak into other areas of the body.

Effects Of Cocaine On The Brain

Cocaine narrows blood vessels, which can cause a lack of blood supply to certain areas of the body. A stroke occurs where there is not enough blood flow to the brain, which causes brain damage that may affect how a person’s body functions.

Cocaine can also cause seizures, bleeding in the brain or skull, inflammation of brain blood vessels, and cerebral atrophy, a condition in which cells in the brain shrink and become disconnected. The drug is linked to impairments in attention, thinking, learning, memory, and impulse regulation. It may contribute to movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

Long-term cocaine use actually ages the brain faster. A 2017 study found that cocaine causes high levels of iron in the brain, which may lead to neurodegeneration (a breakdown of nerve cells). This is the cause of memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Effects Of Cocaine On The Mind

Unlike many drugs, such as opioids and alcohol, cocaine does not cause the body to become dependent on it to function. However, it does have a powerful effect on the mind.

Cocaine increases the amount of dopamine that is present in the brain, which creates a sense of euphoria and heightened energy. Dopamine is a part of the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure. This leads a person to associate cocaine with pleasure, and connections (synapses) in their brain form to reinforce this belief.

A lot of people quickly develop a tolerance to cocaine, which prompts them to take higher amounts, sometimes more often. This leads to further changes in their brain, which causes the brain to need cocaine to feel normal (addiction). Without cocaine, a person suffering from addiction has withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis.

The longer someone continues taking cocaine, the less effective it will become. They may begin to experience negative mental symptoms like irritability, restlessness, panic attacks, paranoia, and psychosis. Hallucinations and mood disorders are also among the long-term effects of cocaine use.

At some point, cocaine no longer makes a person feel better and increasing their dose or frequency of use puts them dangerously close to overdose. Still, it is nearly impossible for them to stop because the withdrawal symptoms are so unpleasant and their brain craves the drug.

Treatment Options For Cocaine Addiction

While some of the long-term effects of cocaine abuse are permanent, some of them may resolve if a person stops using cocaine. Addiction treatment programs help individuals learn life skills and coping techniques that avoid further damage from cocaine abuse.

Treatment for cocaine addiction usually includes a variety of therapies that work together to meet an individual’s specific needs. Some treatment programs offer nutritional support and fitness centers that help to reverse the negative physical effects of long-term cocaine use.

These programs should also examine the aspects of a person’s life that led them to start and continue using cocaine. Dealing with emotional and relational issues at the root of addiction is vital to preventing relapse and preparing individuals for lasting recovery.

Radiology Society of North America - Pulmonary Complications from Cocaine and Cocaine-Based Substances

ScienceDaily - Cocaine addiction leads to build-up of iron in brain

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