What Does Cocaine Do to the Body and Brain?
Made from the leaves of the coca plant, cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug. While it is best known as an illegal street drug, cocaine has legitimate medical applications, especially as a topical anesthetic used during some surgical procedures.
When used recreationally, cocaine is usually snorted, rubbed on the gums, or dissolved in water and injected. It may also be used in the form of rock crystal, where users heat the crystal and inhale the smoke. Street names for cocaine include coke, rock, snow, blow, and crack. Illegal cocaine is often mixed with fillers such as cornstarch, or with other dangerous drugs like fentanyl. Because illegal drugs are unregulated, the user cannot be sure of what their product contains, which can prove fatal.
Health News recently reported that emergency room doctors are seeing an increase in visits and deaths involving cocaine laced with fentanyl or other potent drugs. Researchers have found, “death rates involving cocaine increased by approximately one-third during 2016-2017.” In many of these deaths, fentanyl or other dangerous additives have been identified.
Cocaine increases levels of dopamine
The effects of cocaine are felt within minutes, as the drug enters the bloodstream and quickly reaches the brain. Depending on the method of use, the effects may last from 5 to 30 minutes. The result is increased activity in the brain, including increased levels of dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical messenger that sends signals to the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body, affecting motor function and triggering heightened feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Although signals to increase pleasure can be triggered naturally, cocaine causes a much higher intensity of euphoria, prompting users to want to repeat the experience.
Cocaine also causes dysfunction in how dopamine cycles through the body, allowing it to accumulate between the cells, resulting in increasingly higher doses needed to achieve the desired effect (tolerance). Both increased intensity and tolerance contribute to cocaine addiction. At the most severe level of addiction, users lose the ability to feel pleasure, and are taking cocaine just to feel “normal.”
Effects of cocaine on body and brain
Each time cocaine is used it causes a rapid spike in energy levels, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, body temperature, and, often, anxiety. Users may also experience tremors, nausea, dilated pupils, and restlessness. Many users believe that cocaine increases their mental clarity, helping them to perform both physical and mental tasks more quickly. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, short-term effects of cocaine use include:
- extreme happiness and energy
- mental alertness
- hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch
- decreases appetite
- paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
Use of cocaine presents dangerous health risks
Cocaine use can adversely affect the health of any and all organs, systems, and functions of the body. The Mayo Clinic warns that cocaine can cause a heart attack, coronary artery spasm, arrhythmia, and sudden death. Other medical dangers include:
- Constricted blood vessels – slowing or blocking blood flow
- Dangerously high body temperature – damages brain, heart, kidneys, and can lead to stroke or coma
- Dangerously high blood pressure – can lead to stroke
- Arrhythmia – can cause sudden cardiac death
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate) – risk of stroke or cardiac arrest
Long term effects of cocaine use
Long term use of cocaine increases the above risks and increases the risk of other severe impairments, including:
- Convulsions or seizures
- Movement disorders like Parkinson’s Disease
- Hallucinations or Paranoia
Additional health risks may occur depending on the manner of use and ingestion such as:
- Injecting Cocaine – risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis C; skin ulcers or collapsed veins
- Snorting Cocaine – loss of smell, nosebleeds, runny nose, and trouble swallowing
- Swallowing Cocaine – bowel decay (from reduced blood flow)
- Smoking Cocaine – cough, asthma, impaired lung function, respiratory distress, and higher risk of infections like pneumonia
Even the first time use of cocaine can result in an overdose, especially if the drug is combined with alcohol, heroin, or another dangerous drug. A cocaine overdose is a medical emergency. If you suspect an overdose immediately call 911. While there is no medication that can reverse a cocaine overdose, rapid medical intervention can save the life of the drug user.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.