Cocaine Addiction and Treatment

What is cocaine?

There are two forms of cocaine: the hydrochloride salt and the "freebase." The hydrochloride salt, or powdered form of cocaine, dissolves in water and, when abused, can be taken intravenously (by vein) or intranasally (in the nose). Freebase refers to a compound that has not been neutralized by an acid to make the hydrochloride salt. The freebase form of cocaine is smokable.

Cocaine is generally sold on the street as a fine, white, crystalline powder, known as "coke," "C," "snow," "flake," or "blow." Street dealers generally dilute it with such inert substances as cornstarch, talcum powder, and/or sugar, or with such active drugs as procaine (a chemically-related local anesthetic) or with such other stimulants as amphetamines.

What is crack cocaine?

Crack is the street name given to the freebase form of cocaine that has been processed from the powdered cocaine hydrochloride form to a smokable substance. Crack cocaine is processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water, and heated to remove the hydrochloride.

One of the most dangerous, addictive, and commonly abused street drugs in the United States and other nations, cocaine is most often used in one of two forms:

  • Powder cocaine – In hydrochloride salt form, this version of the drug can be dissolved in water, and is commonly ingested either intranasally (snorted through the nose) or intravenously (injected via syringe).
  • Crack cocaine – Popularized during the 1980s, this version (also referred to as “rock” cocaine) has been processed from powder into a small white pebble-like form that can be smoked. Crack is much less expensive on the street than powder cocaine is, and is even more addictive than is the hydrochloride salt form.

The United Nations has classified cocaine as a Schedule I drug – which means that the UN has outlawed the production, manufacture, distribution, use, and possession of the drug.

In the United States, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II substance, meaning that in the eyes of the U.S. government the drug has a high potential for abuse, but does have some legitimate medical applications.

Because crack is smoked, the user experiences a high in less than 10 seconds. This rather immediate and euphoric effect is one of the reasons that crack became enormously popular in the mid 1980s. Another reason is that crack is inexpensive both to produce and to buy.

How are the methods of cocaine use?

The principal routes of cocaine use are oral, intranasal, intravenous, and inhalation. The slang terms for these routes are, respectively, "chewing," "snorting," "mainlining," "injecting," and "smoking" (including freebase and crack cocaine). Snorting is the process of inhaling cocaine powder through the nostrils, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Injecting releases the drug directly into the bloodstream, and heightens the intensity of its effects. Smoking involves the inhalation of cocaine vapor or smoke into the lungs, where absorption into the bloodstream is as rapid as by injection.

There is no safe method of cocaine use. Any route of administration can lead to absorption of toxic amounts of cocaine, leading to acute cardiovascular or cerebrovascular emergencies that could result in sudden death. Repeated cocaine use by any route of administration can produce addiction and other adverse health consequences.

What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?

Cocaine's effects appear almost immediately after a single dose, and disappear within a few minutes or hours. Taken in small amounts (up to 100 mg), cocaine usually makes the user feel euphoric, energetic, talkative, and mentally alert, especially to the sensations of sight, sound, and touch. It can also temporarily decrease the need for food and sleep. Some users find that the drug helps them to perform simple physical and intellectual tasks more quickly, while others can experience the opposite effect.

Short-term effects of cocaine
  • Increased energy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Mental alertness
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Increased temperature
  • Dilated pupils

The short-term physiological effects of cocaine include constricted blood vessels; dilated pupils; and increased temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Large amounts (several hundred milligrams or more) intensify the user's high, but may also lead to bizarre, erratic, and violent behavior. These users may experience tremors, vertigo, muscle twitches, paranoia, or, with repeated doses, a toxic reaction closely resembling amphetamine poisoning. Some users of cocaine report feelings of restlessness, irritability, and anxiety. In rare instances, sudden death can occur on the first use of cocaine or unexpectedly thereafter. Cocaine-related deaths are often a result of cardiac arrest or seizures followed by respiratory arrest.

What are the long-term effects of cocaine use?

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive drug. Once having tried cocaine, an individual may have difficulty predicting or controlling the extent to which he or she will continue to use. Cocaine's stimulant and addictive effects are thought to be primarily a result of its ability to inhibit the reabsorption of dopamine by nerve cells. Dopamine is released as part of the brain's reward system, and is either directly or indirectly involved in the addictive properties of every major drug of abuse.

Long-term effects of cocaine
  • Addiction
  • Irritability and mood disturbances
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Auditory hallucinations

An appreciable tolerance to cocaine's high may develop, with many addicts reporting that they seek but fail to achieve as much pleasure as they did from their first experience. Some users will frequently increase their doses to intensify and prolong the euphoric effects. While tolerance to the high can occur, users can also become more sensitive (sensitization) to cocaine's anesthetic and convulsant effects, without increasing the dose taken. This increased sensitivity may explain some deaths occurring after apparently low doses of cocaine.

What are the medical complications of cocaine use?

There are enormous medical complications associated with cocaine use. Some of the most frequent complications are cardiovascular effects, including disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks; such respiratory effects as chest pain and respiratory failure; neurological effects, including strokes, seizure, and headaches; and gastrointestinal complications, including abdominal pain and nausea.

Medical consequences of cocaine use
Cardiovascular effects
  • disturbances in heart rhythm
  • heart attacks
Respiratory effects
  • chest pain
  • respiratory failure
Neurological effects
  • strokes
  • seizures and headaches
Gastrointestinal complications
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea

Cocaine use has been linked to many types of heart disease. Cocaine has been found to trigger chaotic heart rhythms, called ventricular fibrillation; accelerate heartbeat and breathing; and increase blood pressure and body temperature. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, nausea, blurred vision, fever, muscle spasms, convulsions and coma.

Different routes of cocaine administration can produce different adverse effects. Regularly snorting cocaine, for example, can lead to loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, problems with swallowing, hoarseness, and an overall irritation of the nasal septum, which can lead to a chronically inflamed, runny nose. Ingested cocaine can cause severe bowel gangrene, due to reduced blood flow. And, persons who inject cocaine have puncture marks and "tracks," most commonly in their forearms. Intravenous cocaine users may also experience an allergic reaction, either to the drug, or to some additive in street cocaine, which can result, in severe cases, in death.

Research has revealed a potentially dangerous interaction between cocaine and alcohol. Taken in combination, the two drugs are converted by the body to cocaethylene. Cocaethylene has a longer duration of action in the brain and is more toxic than either drug alone. While more research needs to be done, it is noteworthy that the mixture of cocaine and alcohol is the most common two-drug combination that results in drug-related death.


Consequences of Cocaine Use

Over the past few decades, cocaine (in both powder and crack forms) has remained a popular drug of abuse among people of various ages and socioeconomic groups. The drug produces a short-term euphoria, energy boost, and increased alertness that some find appealing – but both first-time and long-term users are putting themselves at risk for a number of consequences:

Short-Term Dangers – The most worrisome short-term danger is that even a single dose of cocaine can lead to fatal cardiac arrest. Other dangers include respiratory failure, cardiovascular damage, and seizure.

Long-Term Damage – For habitual users (those who have used for a long period of time, or who have ingested a significant amount of cocaine), the long-term ramifications of cocaine abuse include the following:

  • Addiction and tolerance
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Irregular heart rhythm and increased likelihood of cardiac arrest
  • Respiratory failure (impaired breathing)
  • A greater likelihood of seizure and stroke
  • Chest pain, abdominal pain, and nausea

Are cocaine users at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?

Yes. cocaine users, especially those who inject, are at increased risk for contracting such infectious diseases as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV/AIDS) and hepatitis. In fact, use and abuse of illicit drugs, including crack cocaine, have become the leading risk factors for new cases of HIV. Drug abuse-related spread of HIV can result from direct transmission of the virus through the sharing of contaminated needles and paraphernalia between injecting drug users. Research has also shown that drug use can interfere with judgement about risk-taking behavior, and can potentially lead to reduced precautions about having sex, the sharing of needles and injection paraphernalia, and the trading of sex for drugs, by both men and women.

Additionally, hepatitis C is spreading rapidly among injection drug users; current estimates indicate infection rates of 65 to 90 percent in this population. At present, there is no vaccine for the hepatitis C virus, and the only treatment is expensive, often unsuccessful, and may have serious side effects.

What is the effect of maternal cocaine use?

The full extent of the effects of prenatal drug exposure on a child is not completely known, but many scientific studies have documented that babies born to mothers who abuse cocaine during pregnancy are often prematurely delivered, have low birth weights and smaller head circumferences, and are often shorter in length.

What treatments are effective for cocaine users?

There has been an enormous increase in the number of people seeking treatment for cocaine addiction during the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of individuals seeking treatment smoke crack, and are likely to be users of more than one substance. The widespread abuse of cocaine has stimulated extensive efforts to develop treatment programs for this type of drug abuse. cocaine addiction and use is a complex problem involving biological changes in the brain as well as a myriad of social, familial, and environmental factors. Therefore, treatment of cocaine addiction is complex, and must address a variety of problems.

Behavioral Interventions

Many behavioral treatments have been found to be effective for cocaine addiction, including both residential and outpatient approaches. Indeed, behavioral therapies are often the only available, effective treatment approaches to many drug problems, including cocaine addiction, for which there is, as yet, no viable medication.

Therapeutic communities, or residential programs with planned lengths of stay of 6 to 12 months, offer another alternative to those in need of treatment for cocaine addiction. Therapeutic communities are often comprehensive, in that they focus on the resocialization of the individual to society, and can include on-site vocational rehabilitation and other supportive services.

Pharmacological Approaches

There are no medications currently available to treat cocaine addiction specifically. Consequently, NIDA is aggressively pursuing the identification and testing of new cocaine treatment medications. Because of mood changes experienced during the early stages of cocaine abstinence, antidepressant drugs have been shown to be of some benefit. In addition to the problems of treating addiction, cocaine overdose results in many deaths every year, and medical treatments are being developed to deal with the acute emergencies resulting from excessive cocaine use.

What is the scope of cocaine use in the United States?

In 1997, an estimated 1.5 million Americans (0.7 percent of those age 12 and older) were current cocaine users, according to the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA). This number has not changed significantly since 1992, although it is a dramatic decrease from the 1985 peak of 5.7 million cocaine users(3 percent of the population). Based upon additional data sources that take into account users underrepresented in the NHSDA, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates the number of chronic cocaine users at 3.6 million.

Trends in 30-day prevalence of cocaine use among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders, 1991-1998
Trends in 30-day prevalence of cocaine use

Adults 18 to 25 years old have a higher rate of current cocaine use than those in any other age group. Overall, men have a higher rate of current cocaine use than do women. Also, according to the 1997 NHSDA, rates of current cocaine use were 1.4 percent for African Americans, 0.8 percent for Hispanics, and 0.6 percent for Caucasians.

Crack cocaine remains a serious problem in the United States. The NHSDA estimated the number of current crack users to be about 604,000 in 1997, which does not reflect any significant change since 1988.

The 1998 Monitoring the Future Survey, which annually surveys teen attitudes and recent drug use, reports that lifetime and past-year use of crack increased among eighth graders to its highest levels since 1991, the first year data were available for this grade. The percentage of eighth graders reporting crack use at least once in their lives increased from 2.7 percent in 1997 to 3.2 percent in 1998. Past-year use of crack also rose slightly among this group, although no changes were found for other grades.

Treatment for Cocaine Abuse & Addiction

In addition to the medical risks described above, cocaine abuse and addiction can lead to significant social and behavioral damage, as well as impairments to a person’s ability to maintain healthy relationships, remain gainfully employed, and continue as a functioning member of society.

On the “good news” side, though, cocaine abuse and addiction are treatable conditions that, with effective professional intervention, can be overcome. Many individuals who once believed that they were incapable of transcending their addictive lifestyle are now living happy, healthy, and productive drug-free lives.
As with some other types of addiction, cocaine abuse and addictions appear to respond best to a two-pronged treatment approach that features behavioral and pharmacological components

Behavioral – Whether conducted on an outpatient basis or in a residential treatment facility, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches recovering individuals how to take control over their urges and behaviors, and how to resist cravings, stresses, pressures, and other unhealthy influences that may lead to relapse. Behavioral therapy may be conducted in individual, family, and group settings, and may also include contingency management instruction (focusing on new behaviors in order to minimize the likelihood of a return to former drug-seeking activities).

Pharmacological – This type of treatment involves the use of medications (in the case of cocaine addiction, usually antidepressants) to ease the physical and mental stress of detoxification and withdrawal.

Though a wide range of treatment philosophies and methodologies exist, what is most important is to find a program that meets the unique needs of the person who needs the help.

If you or someone you love is struggling to overcome a problem with cocaine, you can learn more about abuse, addiction, and available treatment options by calling 866-323-5608.

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