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What Are the Short and Long-Term Effects of Cocaine?

Cocaine is a potent stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. The drug is highly addictive, and although some healthcare providers use it for valid medical reasons, such as surgery or local anesthesia, cocaine is considered an illegal drug. 

When it reaches the street, it comes in a fine, white crystal powder. Street dealers commonly cut the drug with talcum powder, cornstarch, or flower to stretch their profits. In some situations, they might mix it with amphetamines to increase its potency.

Cocaine is abused mostly by young adults 18 to 25. Repeated use of the drug can cause addiction and other health consequences. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 913,000 Americans met the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for dependence or abuse of cocaine in the past 12 months. 

Cocaine was involved in 505,224 of the 1.3 million emergency room visits for drugs in 2011, translating to 40 percent of all cases.

Long-term use of the drug can cause severe physical problems. Fortunately, it’s possible to reverse the damage done to your body from crack or powder cocaine abuse. However, years of continued abuse may lead to irreversible effects. Treating chronic issues can lead to a lifetime of medical complications, doctor’s visits, and hospital bills.

It’s crucial that you consider cocaine addiction treatment immediately. Forget the psychological and financial harms it may cause, but the physical harm could cause damage that lasts a lifetime. Treatment can help slow any further problems. Let’s take a look at the short-term and long-term effects of cocaine.

Short-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse

The effects of cocaine appear immediately after a single dose and will disappear shortly. Small amounts of cocaine cause euphoria, energy, talkativeness, mental alertness, and hypersensitivity to sound, sight, and touch. Cocaine will also decrease the need for sleep or food. Some individuals find cocaine helps them perform simple intellectual and physical tasks more efficiently, although others report the opposite effects. 

The duration of its effects is dependent on the route of administration. The quicker the drug is absorbed, the more intense the high for a user and the shorter its duration. Individuals who snort cocaine notice a slow onset of the high, but it lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. The feeling of smoking is faster but lasts maybe five to ten minutes. 

Short-term effects physiological effects of cocaine use consist of the following:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Bizarre, violent, or erratic behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Restlessness
  • Vertigo
  • Tremors
  • Muscle twitches

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse on the Heart

Cardiovascular damage is a real threat when it comes to long-term cocaine abuse. The immediate side effects, as mentioned above, include rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and vasoconstriction in the brain and throughout the body. You’ll notice this by a person’s anxiety, high energy, stress, or paranoia when they’re using the drug. 

Chronic use of powder or crack cocaine damage the cardiovascular system in various ways, including:

  • Tachycardia
  • Angina, stemming from chest pain and tightening of the vessels
  • Blood clots that could lead to heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolism, and deep vein thrombosis
  • Myocardial infarction, which could lead to the death of heart muscles due to lack of oxygen from poor blood flow
  • Arrhythmia, or irregular heart rate
  • A permanent increase of blood pressure

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death for those who abuse cocaine. 

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse on the Sinuses

Long-term damage to the mouth and nose is possible with long-term cocaine abuse. Snorting cocaine leads to damage of the mucous membranes in the nose. In a drier environment and less blood flow, soft tissues in your nose will get damaged and die. It will cause exposure of the cartilage lining between nasal cavities, known as the septum. Once the cartilage is exposed, it will also die and create a hole, causing the collapse of our nose. Although it can sometimes be corrected with plastic surgery, that’s not always the case when it’s severe. 

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Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse on the Respiratory System

Snorting cocaine can cause membrane damage through the sinus cavity, but smoking will cause upper respiratory and throat issues. Crack cocaine is more likely to cause severe respiratory problems, causing blood vessels in the lungs to restrict. Alveolar walls are destroyed, and oxygen will not enter the bloodstream, and capillaries carrying oxygen to the rest of the body can be destroyed. It can lead to a chronic cough, tuberculosis, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, pulmonary edema, or asthma. 

Individuals who chronically abuse crack cocaine may develop “crack lung,” otherwise known as eosinophilic pneumonitis. Symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Cough
  • Wheezing sounds
  • Black septum
  • Increased presence of white blood cells
  • Increased body temperature

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse on the Brain

The consistent constriction of blood vessels may reduce the amount of oxygen the brain receives, leading to brain damage. It may also increase the odds of an aneurysm because of damage to the vascular walls that feed the brain. Other brain damages from crack or powder cocaine abuse include:

  • Seizures
  • Mini-strokes, or transient ischemic attacks
  • Cerebral vasculitis
  • Cerebral atrophy, which is the shrinking of the brain
  • Hyperpyrexia, a high fever requiring immediate medical attention
  • Changes to temporal and prefrontal lobe functioning, leading to problems with decision-making, vocabulary, spatial understanding, learning, and memory disorders
  • Changes to movement, causing muscle weakness, tremors, and changes in gait

Cocaine ages the brain, meaning the risk of dementia will increase significantly. Long-term memory issues may also cause conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s. Individuals with a higher risk of developing dementia are more likely to trigger the disease earlier in life if they abuse cocaine indefinitely. 

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Abuse on the Gastrointestinal Tract

When blood flow is reduced, several organ systems will be indirectly damaged over time, including the intestines and stomach. Short-term side effects from cocaine abuse include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Reduced appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Necrotic bowel
  • Death of essential tissues in the gastrointestinal system
Cocaine in a bag in someone's hand

Those who struggle with cocaine addictions are at an elevated risk of developing ulcers due to the changes in the pH of the stomach. It may also lead to the inflammation of the large intestine, which causes severe digestive issues or death.

Liver injury is also possible with long-term cocaine abuse. While most damage will resolve after cessation of cocaine, there have been instances of death due to acute liver damage. Chronic liver damage is less likely, but in some cases, it can lead to the production of cocaethylene when mixed with alcohol.

If you’re struggling with cocaine addiction, you need to get help before causing irreversible damage to your body.

Sources

NIDA (January 2021) Cocaine. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/cocaine

NIDA (January 2021) What is the Scope of Cocaine Use in the United States? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-scope-cocaine-use-in-united-states

NIDA (January 2021) What Are the Short-Term Effects of Cocaine Use? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use

Rockfeller (December 2020) The Role of Cocaine Mortality in a Resurgent Overdose Epidemic. Retrieved from https://rockinst.org/blog/the-role-of-cocaine-mortality-in-a-resurgent-overdose-epidemic/

AHAJournals (December 2010) Cardiovascular Effects of Cocaine. Retrieved from https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/circulationaha.110.940569

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