The Long-Term Consequences of Cocaine Use

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

Cocaine is a powerful and highly addictive stimulant drug. Due to its high abuse potential, it is classified as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Still, it has an accepted medical use for medical treatment in the United States. Cocaine has been historically used as a pain-blocking medicine and an anesthetic for surgeries for medical purposes. However, recreationally, cocaine use remains illegal for several different reasons.

More than 16,000 people lost their lives in 2019 to overdose, including overdose deaths from cocaine use. Loss of life due to overdose is just one of the many reasons why cocaine remains an illegal substance. It is essential to recognize the addictive potential of cocaine and the associated consequences of long-term cocaine use to help reduce the number of overdose deaths and encourage treatment for those that use cocaine.

What is Cocaine?

Cocaine is made from the leaves of the native South American coca plant. People have ingested the leaves for thousands of years to experience its stimulating effects. However, nearly 100 years ago, the purified chemical cocaine hydrochloride was isolated from the plant by harvesting and soaking the leaves in various solutions. The resulting chemical is now known as cocaine.

Pure cocaine is a white powder. It is most commonly administered by snorting it up the nose, although it is also known to be dissolved in water and injected into the bloodstream. When cocaine is processed into crystal cocaine, it is often then smoked. This form of cocaine is known as crack cocaine, as the heating up of the crystals creates a crackling sound.

No matter how a person consumes or administers cocaine recreationally, it is hazardous. Since cocaine is an unregulated street drug, dealers often dilute it or cut it with other substances to increase their profits. This practice is concerning because buyers do not know the purity of the cocaine they think they are buying, which significantly increases the risk of overdose if the cocaine is cut with fentanyl. Even if cocaine is pure when consumed, it can cause many short-term and long-term health consequences.

How One-Time Use Leads to Repeated Use

The first significant consequence of cocaine use can also be said about using any substance. It begins with the initial decision to try a substance like cocaine. Chemical substances produce abnormally large amounts of pleasure and reward in the brain and body, caused by surges in neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. After exposure to cocaine even one time, an individual’s brain will identify substance use as pleasurable and seek out substance-using behavior.

The brain adapts to regular cocaine use with repeated exposure and becomes less sensitive to pleasurable natural rewards, such as social relationships, food or sex. Withdrawal symptoms may present themself after using cocaine one time, which also reinforces repeated substance use. Then, tolerance increases, requiring a person to use higher or more frequent doses of a substance to experience desired effects or avoid withdrawals. All of these factors play a role in the development of addiction, another significant consequence of cocaine use.

Short-Term Effects

When snorted, the short-term effects of cocaine may last between 15 and 30 minutes. When smoked, effects may last 5 to 10 minutes. While short-term effects may seem to ease distress, short-term pleasure should not compensate for long-term health consequences. Some short-term health effects of cocaine may include:

  • Extremely high mood
  • Mental alertness
  • Hypersensitivity to senses
  • Irritability
  • Increased heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Paranoia

In high doses, short-term effects can include bizarre and aggressive or violent behavior.

Long-Term Health Effects

The long-term health effects of cocaine, other than the increased risk of addiction and overdose, vary but are specific to the route of administration:

  • When snorted: loss of smell, nosebleeds, frequent runny nose
  • When smoked: respiratory illnesses, asthma, chronic cough and higher risk of infections
  • When injected: higher risk of contracting bloodborne illnesses such as HIV or hepatitis C, infections, scarring or collapsed veins

General long-term health effects:

  • Chronic panic attacks and associated panic disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Adverse psychological effects, such as exacerbating other mental health distress
  • Damage to other organs in the body, such as the heart, as cocaine produces toxic effects on the cardiovascular system
  • Significant weight loss and malnourishment
  • Chronic chest pain that mimics the pain of a heart attack
  • Increased risk of stroke and seizures
  • Neurological problems, including bleeding in the brain
  • Reduction of motor coordination and other movement disorders
  • High risk for relapse, even following long periods of abstinence

Seeking Treatment for Cocaine Addiction

Treatment is a valuable resource for anyone struggling with cocaine use or associated short and long-term consequences. Without treatment, the risk of relapse increases significantly as a person must identify and overcome unhealthy habits and triggers, not just stop substance use cold turkey. Treatment provides individuals with the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective and a fresh start in their life, free from the control of substance use.

Cliffside Malibu is an addiction treatment facility that provides incomparable compassion and clinical excellence to patients. We are a premier provider of cocaine addiction treatment in California. Despite cocaine’s highly addictive potential, we believe in your ability to seek help and achieve long-term recovery from your cocaine addiction. To learn more about our facility, call us today at (855) 403-5641.