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What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a powerful and highly addictive drug made from the dried leaves of the coca plant. Cocaine is usually a white powder that is most often snorted. Cocaine that's been made into rock-crystal form is known as crack. Some users also smoke a powder form of cocaine — called freebasing — or mix the powder with water and inject it into a vein.

Short-Term Effects

Cocaine is a stimulant that jolts the central nervous system. This gives users a quick, intense feeling of power, energy, euphoria, and mental alertness. Cocaine causes the brain to produce higher levels of dopamine, a chemical that carries messages within the brain. These higher dopamine levels create the high associated with cocaine; they also create its many problems.

The different ways of doing cocaine produce slightly different highs. Snorting cocaine delivers a high that comes on quickly and lasts for 15 to 30 minutes. Smoking or injecting cocaine gives the user a more intense, immediate high that lasts for 5 to 10 minutes.

Other short-term effects include:

  • elevated heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
  • jaw clenching and teeth grinding
  • suppressed appetite and less need for sleep
  • euphoria and talkativeness
  • feelings of restlessness, irritability, or paranoia

Using large amounts of cocaine can lead people to become violent and behave erratically. Excessive use also can cause severe medical complications. People who take a lot of cocaine might have heart attacks, strokes, and seizures that can put them in a coma or even kill. In rare cases, first-time users of cocaine can die suddenly after taking the drug, even when they're young.

Long-Term Effects

Cocaine is extremely addictive. A user can develop cravings for the drug after taking it just once. Repeated use of cocaine can lead people to develop a tolerance to it. They have to use more and more cocaine to get the same highs. Doing so then puts users at a higher risk for stroke and heart attack.

People who snort cocaine a lot over a long period of time can lose their sense of smell or damage their nostrils. They may have lots of nosebleeds, hoarseness, or trouble swallowing.

Injecting cocaine and sharing needles greatly increases the risk of getting diseases like hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.

Taking a large dose of cocaine or using it in binges can lead people to become edgy and irritable. They may have panic attacks and even full-blown psychosis where they hear voices and have trouble staying in touch with reality.

Other long-term effects include:

  • gangrene in the bowels from decreased blood flow
  • physical exhaustion
  • nausea and abdominal pain
  • headaches
  • reduced appetite and health problems from malnutrition
  • depression and other mental health issues

Other Possible Problems

Mixing other substances with cocaine can have deadly consequences. Research has shown that mixing cocaine with alcohol greatly increases the chance of sudden death. In fact, this drug combination is the one most likely to kill.

Cocaine is listed as a Schedule II stimulant, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and can only be used by doctors for limited medical applications. Using or possessing cocaine is a felony punishable by jail time in most states.

How Can Someone Quit?

Quitting cocaine can be very difficult and usually involves spending time in a rehab facility, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or other therapies. Right now, there are no medicines that are effective for treating cocaine addiction.

If you think you might have a cocaine problem, talking with a counselor or joining a support group can help make it easier to quit.

Avoiding Cocaine

The chances of becoming addicted to cocaine are high. People can become addicted after only one use. Because that one time can kill, it's important to avoid cocaine at all costs. Even if cocaine doesn't end a life, it can definitely ruin one.

Reviewed by: Julia Brown Lancaster, MSN, WHNP-BC
Date reviewed: February 2014