Physiological Effects of Cocaine Addiction

Physiological Effects of Cocaine Addiction

Derived from the coca plant, cocaine is a powerfully stimulating, extremely addictive drug acts as a “triple re-uptake inhibitor” by elevating levels of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

Cocaine’s addictiveness can be attributed to its excessive effects on the mesolimbic reward pathway, which controls feelings of pleasure, reward and motivation.

When taken at higher doses, cocaine is significantly more dangerous than methamphetamine or other central nervous system stimulants because of its ability to block sodium channels in the brain, an action that may cause sudden cardiac arrest and death.

Who Uses Cocaine?

Men between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most likely demographic to use cocaine, although the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that women aged 15 to 44 years also have high rates of cocaine use.

Scotland has the most cocaine users, followed by the U.S., El Salvador, England and Wales and Canada.

Short-term Physiological Effects of Cocaine

When cocaine is inhaled, users begin feeling its effect within five seconds as reuptake of dopamine, serotonin and nor epinephrine is inhibited. Systemic effects involve increased heart rate and a blood pressure spike, followed by:

  • Dilated Pupils
  • Higher Body Temperature/Excessive Sweating
  • Constricted Blood Vessels
  • Tachycardia
  • Muscle Twitching/Spasms

Because cocaine narrows arteries responsible for supplying oxygenated blood to the heart while simultaneously increasing blood pressure and heart rate, even new users can suffer chest pains and heart attacks the first time they snort or inject cocaine.


Long-term Physiological Effects of Cocaine

Cocaine addiction has been shown to promote neuroadaptive changes in several brain systems, including the frontostriatal, a collection of neural pathways connecting the frontal lobes and basal ganglia. Vital to mediating behavioral, cognitive and motor functioning, the frontostriatal is dependent on dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine for working properly.

Since cocaine disrupts the normal flow of these neurotransmitters, physiological changes emerge that are detrimental and ultimately destructive to the user’s mental and physical health.

Other physiological problems resulting from long-term cocaine use include:

  • Heart Attacks and Strokes
  • Migraines
  • Bleeding Ulcers
  • Seizures/Convulsions
  • Arrhythmia
  • Coma
  • Severe Nosebleeds/Loss of Sense of Smell (When Snorted Regularly)
  • Bowel Gangrene caused by Inhibited Blood Flow To the Intestines
  • Malnutrition/Weight Loss
  • Hepatitis/HIV/Blood Infections (For Intravenous Cocaine Users)

Cocaine is so addictive that users who are suffering withdrawal symptoms report feeling slightly high just watching someone else inject or snort cocaine. Additionally, research has found that combining alcohol and cocaine may be more dangerous than combining heroin and cocaine (speedball).

The liver converts alcohol and cocaine into cocaethylene, which remains in the brain longer than cocaine by itself and intensifies the physiological effects of cocaine.

Long-term, Intravenous cocaine addicts may also develop systemic sclerosis, a connective or autoimmune tissue disorder causing extreme skin tightness and thickness. Although it is normally a rare disease, systemic sclerosis has been found in users who have injected cocaine for more than a decade.


Are the Physiological Effects of Cocaine Reversible?

Man sharing problems with psychologist

Yes and no. Damage to the heart, intestines, brain and nasal components may require lifelong medical attention if cocaine use is heavy and long-term.

Mental issues in areas of memory, decision-making and attention may also continue to affect users who complete an addiction program and achieve a successful recovery.

This makes getting help for a cocaine addiction as soon as possible essential to preventing irreparable health issues from undermining a recovering addict’s quality of life.