Cocaine is one of the most common illicit recreational drugs in the United States, and it was the subject of a drug epidemic in the 1980s. Today, it’s still a significant problem all over the country, causing substance use disorders and overdoses.
Cocaine misuse can quickly lead to a severe substance use disorder. Cocaine addiction can be challenging to overcome on your own without outside help, and it can jeopardize multiple areas of your life, including your health, relationships, and financial stability. However, cocaine addiction is treatable with the right level of care and therapies.
Learn more about cocaine addiction and how it can be treated.
Cocaine is a stimulant drug that was once used for medicinal purposes in the United States. Other options have since replaced it, and cocaine has become more popular as a recreational drug. In the 1980s, cocaine, and its freebase form crack, was the center of an addiction epidemic that lasted well into the 1990s. Today, amid another drug epidemic entered on opioids, cocaine is still a significant problem in many communities.
As a stimulant, cocaine works to increase activity in your nervous system, which can cause a feeling of excitement, arousal, and euphoria. Cocaine achieves this effect by increasing the amount of dopamine in your system by blocking a process called reuptake. Reuptake is a process in which a chemical is removed from your nervous system and recycled.
It prevents buildups that might cause a chemical imbalance. Some medications that treat chemical imbalances may block reuptake to increase a chemical to correct a problem. Cocaine is a potent stimulant that can significantly increase dopamine levels by preventing their removal.
As more dopamine binds to dopamine receptors, you’ll experience extreme stimulating effects like physical and mental euphoria. You may also experience negative side effects like anxiety, panic, discomfort, heart palpitations, numbness around the route of administration, and high body temperature.
Cocaine can also be powerfully addictive, causing severe substance use disorders, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, and problems in your life.
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Cocaine’s history as a recreational drug has shown what it can do to people that use it for too long or in high amounts. Cocaine misuse can quickly lead to addiction and other problems like health issues and financial ruin. High doses can also cause acute medical problems and deadly overdoses. High doses can cause issues related to overheating, heart arrhythmias, and elevated blood pressure. Fatal overdoses often involve heart attacks, even in otherwise healthy people.
Cocaine can also cause uncomfortable psychological symptoms. During active use, you may feel anxious, paranoid, or panicked. Negative psychological symptoms are more likely during a cocaine binge, which involves long periods of insomnia. Staying awake for long periods on cocaine can cause stimulant psychosis, which involves symptoms like delusions and hallucinations.
Cocaine misuse can also cause uncomfortable symptoms during a comedown or during withdrawal. As the powerful stimulant wears off, you’ll start to experience severe fatigue, drowsiness, and depression. Comedowns may also cause anxiety and restlessness. In cases of long-term, active cocaine addiction, withdrawal can cause severe depression and feelings of anhedonia. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure, which can strengthen your dependence on cocaine. Anhedonia is usually temporary and goes away as your brain chemistry recovers.
Addiction is a disease that affects the brain, particularly its reward center. Your brain’s reward center is designed to identify and encourage healthy activities like eating a good meal and forming social connections. The reward system works with feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine.
Whenever you do something rewarding, such as eating your favorite food, dopamine is released. Your brain learns to encourage rewarding activities through cravings, especially in response to stress or discomfort. This is why it can be tempting to eat junk food after a tough day at work.
Cocaine causes a buildup of dopamine that’s more pronounced than most natural activities. Your reward center quickly picks up on this activity, which sends your mood and energy levels skyrocketing. Your brain can’t tell the difference between cocaine use and healthy activities, so it treats cocaine like an important life-sustaining activity. You’ll begin to experience compulsions to use cocaine that are so powerful, they overshadow other needs like going to work, personal hygiene, and your health.
Addiction often goes hand in hand with chemical dependence. Using cocaine may start as recreation, but once you become dependent on the drug, you may take it just to feel normal or stave off uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These uncomfortable symptoms only strengthen your substance use disorder and make it harder to stop using the drug.
Cocaine use was once widespread to the point when it was the subject of its own epidemic. It stabilized in the 2000s, but the use of the powerful stimulant remains relatively high today. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 5.5 billion people over age 12 used cocaine within the past year. That accounts for 2 percent of the U.S. population.
In 2018, 112,000 adolescents between the ages of 12-17 used cocaine in the past year. Young adults between ages 18 and 25 represent the age category with the highest percentage of cocaine use, with 5.8 percent of the people in this category using the drug in the past year. 3.5 million adults over the age of 26 used cocaine.
Cocaine use may be stable, but it’s only complicated by the current opioid epidemic. Mixing opioids with cocaine may mask some of each drug’s effects, increasing the risk for an overdose.
Though cocaine addiction is a chronic disease that can worsen over time without intervention, it can be effectively treated. Cocaine addiction treatment will be personalized to your needs and may involve several levels of care and unique therapy options.
When you start an addiction treatment program, addiction care professionals conduct an intake and assessment process to find the right level of care for your needs. The higher level of needs you have when it comes to biological, psychological, and social issues, the higher the level of care you may need to go through.
Detox is the highest level of care, and it’s reserved for people who are going through substance withdrawal and may have related or unrelated medical conditions. Cocaine doesn’t usually cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, but it can cause severe discomfort, fatigue, and psychological symptoms. In some cases, stimulant withdrawal may cause deep depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.
The level of care below detox is inpatient (residential) treatment, which involves medically monitored or clinically managed services. When you can live on your own without danger to your health or recovery, you may move onto an outpatient program. Intensive outpatient treatment involves more than nine hours of treatment services per week, and partial hospitalization requires more than 20 hours each week. Outpatient treatment involves fewer than nine hours of treatment per week.
Each stage of treatment may involve several therapy options. You’ll likely attend individual and group therapy sessions each week. In some cases, you could attend family therapy. Behavioral therapies are also common, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, to help people overcome addiction.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Cocaine. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine
SAMHSA. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf