Cocaine is a powerful stimulant drug which is highly addictive and can create significant changes in the brain and its functionality. Cocaine can be used in four different ways:
- snorting through the nose
- smoking and inhaling, typically in crack form through a pipe, or heated on aluminum foil and smoked through a straw (referred to as chasing the dragon)
- orally, by rubbing cocaine on the gums
- diluting in water and injecting intravenously
The effects of cocaine come fast, regardless of the administration of the drug, and typically do not last more than 20-30 minutes. The way in which cocaine is used may alter the intensity of the high. For example, injecting or smoking cocaine tends to lead to more immediate euphoric effects, than snorting the drug. All methods of using cocaine lead to a short-lived period of euphoria, followed by a crash which is accompanied by intense cravings for more of the drug.
What Causes Cocaine's Euphoric Effects?
Human brains are complex superhighways of information being transported throughout the brain, controlling our movements, sensations, feelings, reactions, and thoughts. Our reward center is just one part of our brain, but it is stimulated by a chemical messenger called dopamine. This is how we feel pleasure from naturally rewarding activities like exercise, eating and sex. In typical brain function, dopamine is released from a transmitting neuron to be accepted by a receiving neuron, and any extra dopamine recycled back to transmitting neuron, through a dopamine transporter. When cocaine is present, the dopamine transporter which is tasked with recycling unneeded dopamine back to the transporting neuron is blocked. This results in the receiving neuron taking in extraordinary amounts of dopamine since the transmitting neuron is blocked from recycling the released dopamine. Now the reward center of the brain is on overload due to a buildup of dopamine, which causes the intensely euphoric effects.
Short Term and Long Term Effects of Cocaine Use
Cocaine's effects are relatively short-lived, especially in comparison with other drugs of abuse and addiction. Snorting cocaine through the nasal passages usually means a slower onset of effects lasting 15 to 30 minutes, while smoking and injecting cocaine tends to be immediate, and effects last only 5 to 10 minutes.
Short term effects of cocaine are relatively consistent with stimulant drugs, including:
- hypersensitivity to sight, sound and touch
- mental alertness
- heightened blood pressure
- rapid or erratic heartbeat
- dilated pupils
- increased body temperature
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine use can cause severe medical complications like heart arrhythmia, seizures, strokes, and coma, and in rare cases, sudden death can occur with cocaine abuse. As a result of the short length of action cocaine has on users, abuse of the drug tends to occur in binges, or frequent and increasingly higher doses of cocaine over a period of several hours or days. When the sustained habit of binge use of cocaine has been developed, some of the long-term effects of the drug can begin to present themselves, and they can include several serious psychological and physical issues. Some common effects of long term cocaine abuse include the following:
- sensitization to adverse effects, in which less cocaine is needed to produce anxiety, paranoia, and convulsions
- higher and more immediate levels of irritability, paranoia, hallucinations, restlessness and panic attacks
- loss of smell, nosebleeds, hoarseness, and problems swallowing (with chronic and long-term snorting of cocaine)
- cognitive functions and brain impairments like reduced attention, impulse inhibition, memory making decisions, and performance of motor tasks
The longer an individual continues to abuse cocaine, a dually inverted effect occurs: It begins to take more cocaine to produce the feelings of euphoria and pleasure. At the same time, it takes smaller amounts of the drug to produce the negative effects of paranoia, anxiety, restlessness, and irritability.
The most impactful and potentially damaging effect of long-term cocaine abuse is growing tolerance and eventual addiction. The more cocaine a person uses, the more of the drug that is needed, to feel euphoric effects from it. This is how tolerance grows and while growing tolerance is not the same as addiction, it is an integral part of the process to becoming addicted.2