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Using cocaine, as with other illegal drugs, carries serious risks and consequences. Addiction to cocaine leads to excessive use and potentially severe health effects. Use of cocaine, even just one time, can lead to death. If someone you know and love may be using, know the facts about cocaine so that you can help them in any way possible.
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is stimulant drug that is psychoactive and extremely addictive. It is a fairly simple molecule with the formula C17H21NO4 and it is found naturally in the leaves of the coca plant. It is of the type of chemical compounds called alkaloids, which also includes morphine, codeine, and other medical substances. Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system, suppresses appetite, and also acts as a topical anesthetic. Because of its chemical properties, cocaine is able to move easily from the bloodstream to the brain, crossing what is called the blood-brain barrier.
Once in the brain, cocaine causes the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter or brain chemical. Dopamine release causes feelings of pleasure and is normally released from neurons when a person experiences something pleasurable. The signal is soon shut off, recycling the dopamine back to the original neuron and stopping the pleasure sensation. Cocaine stops the recycling process causing large releases of dopamine. When used repeatedly, cocaine damages this signaling pathway, which leads tolerance to the substance, increased usage, and addiction.
Where Does Cocaine Come From?
Cocaine is a chemical compound that can be isolated from the leaves of the South American coca plant. Indigenous people of South America have been chewing coca leaves for thousands of years. They used the leaves to treat various ailments like altitude sickness, pains, rheumatism, fatigue, indigestion, and asthma. Besides cocaine and other compounds with medicinal properties, coca leaves contain many nutrients.
The drug cocaine is sold as a white powder that is chemically extracted from large amounts of coca leaves. In this form, cocaine is a salt, meaning it is combined with hydrochloride, sulfate, or nitrate. Often, it is cut with fillers to increase its weight. Typical fillers include baking soda, sugar, dextrose, and lidocaine. Most cocaine that ends up in the U.S. was produced in Colombia. Around 600 tons of cocaine are consumed throughout the world, with nearly half of that in the U.S. According to the United Nations World Drug Report, North America’s cocaine market declined from $47 billion to $38 billion from 1998 to 2008.
How is Cocaine Used?
Cocaine can be used in a few different ways. Most commonly, the powder is snorted into the nose. From there, the cocaine is transmitted to the bloodstream through nasal tissues. Users may also rub the powder directly onto the mucous membranes in the nose. The most common salt of cocaine is the form with hydrochloride, which is water-soluble. When dissolved in water, the solution can then be injected directly into the bloodstream. This produces a faster high than snorting or applying to the mucous membranes. Snorting leads to a 15 to 30 minute high, while injecting gives a shorter high of only five to ten minutes. Because of the short high, many cocaine users will inhale or inject several times in a row to keep it going. This is called binging.
What are the Signs Cocaine Addiction?
If anyone you know uses cocaine, there is a good chance they will become addicted if they are not already. Some people are able to use once or twice without becoming addicted, but it is a big risk. Following are some signs you might see in someone who is already suffering from addiction:
- Nosebleeds. Frequent nosebleeds are a sign of overuse of cocaine. Snorting through the nose repeatedly weakens and destroys the nasal membranes causing the bleeding. This person may also suffer from regular stuffiness or runny nose.
- Crash periods. After binging on cocaine, a person will experience a period of listlessness and low energy. They may even sleep for days afterwards.
- Financial problems. Cocaine is not inexpensive. If someone develops sudden financial problems when they were previously responsible with their money, they may be using too much. An addict can burn through money very quickly.
- Paranoia and panic attacks. Because cocaine changes the brain, psychological symptoms can develop with use of the drug. Common symptoms include feeling that everyone is out to get them or general anxiety and panic.
- Manic periods. When using cocaine, a person will talk rapidly and seem to have a lot of energy. They generally think in very grandiose terms during these periods.
- Changes in personal life. As with all drug addictions, when a person becomes addicted to cocaine, they tend to lose interest in work and relationships. They also tend to drift towards a new crowd of people who are fellow users.
What are the Consequences of Using Cocaine?
Cocaine is a very serious narcotic substance and the consequences of using it, especially regularly and frequently, are very serious. Although cocaine initially acts upon the brain, it adversely affects every part of the body. The reward system in the brain is altered by the use of cocaine. A user’s tolerance to it increases with use, requiring more and more to get a high as time goes on. Other effects on the central nervous system include pupil dilation, headaches, nausea, vomiting, vertigo, tremors, muscle twitches, hallucinations, and psychosis, which resembles paranoid schizophrenia. In the worst cases, cocaine can cause seizures, stroke, and death.
If cocaine is taken by snorting, the user can get damaged mucous membranes, often severe enough to create holes in the nasal passages. Cocaine causes abnormal heart rhythms, increased heart rate, a ruptured aorta, high blood pressure, angina, and heart attack, which can lead to death. In pregnant women, cocaine use causes complications and stillbirth.
When to Get Help
As soon as you recognize any symptoms of cocaine abuse or addiction or even suspect that someone is using cocaine, you should attempt to intervene and help. Emergency medical attention should be sought for a cocaine user that experiences any of the following:
- Facial pain with a fever and headache
- Difficulty breathing and severe chest pain
- Chest pain that feels like a squeezing or tightness in the chest
- A severe nosebleed that lasts for ten minutes or more
- Severe abdominal pain
- Vomiting with blood
- Swelling and redness around an injection site, especially with a fever