What is Cocaine, and Why is it Addictive?
Experts report that cocaine is a highly addictive substance belonging to the stimulant class of drugs. Found in the form of a white powder, it comes from the leaves of the South American coca plant. People typically use cocaine by snorting it or by dissolving it in liquid and injecting it into their veins. Some people make cocaine into a rock-like form called crack cocaine and smoke it in a pipe.
As NIDA has reported, cocaine is addictive because of the effect that it has on the human brain.3 When people use cocaine, it increases levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness. When dopamine levels increase, a person feels euphoric, making cocaine use highly rewarding. Over time as the body becomes acclimated to the presence of cocaine and increased dopamine levels, a person will need to take more and more of the drug to achieve the same pleasurable effect. This process eventually results in cocaine tolerance and leads to addiction, with the potential for a person to experience withdrawal when cocaine use is reduced or stopped.
Chronic: Refers to marijuana that is combined with cocaine.
Dusting: Users who sprinkle cocaine on cigarettes or other drugs that are smoked.
Speedballing: The act of using heroin and cocaine together.
Snowcapping: Describes the process of sprinkling cocaine on top of marijuana when smoking it out of a bong.
Additional slang terms are used to describe specific quantities of cocaine. For instance, cocaine users and dealers may refer to a small quantity of cocaine that provides a fast high as a “bump” of the drug, and a “line” describes a quantity of powder cocaine that is placed in a straight line for snorting. In addition, a “brick” describes a kilogram of cocaine, whereas an “eight ball” is an eighth of an ounce of the drug.
With ongoing use and addiction, tolerance occurs, meaning more of the drug must be used in order to achieve the same result. Withdrawal, which involves uncomfortable symptoms that occur when cocaine use is reduced or discontinued, is also a part of cocaine addiction.
Effects of Cocaine Use
NIDA has reported additional health consequences associated with long-term cocaine use, including:
•Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis
Because cocaine reduces appetite, it can also result in weight loss and malnutrition. Cocaine addiction can also affect sexual and reproductive health, causing sexual dysfunction and infertility. Cocaine can cause tremors, and over time, it is associated with movement disorders including symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
While much is known about the dangers of cocaine addiction, there are still some misconceptions regarding this stimulant drug.
Cocaine is Safe
One such misconception is that cocaine is safe, as some people may use cocaine casually in social settings where alcohol is consumed. Unfortunately, even casual cocaine use can be dangerous, with NIDA reporting that just one use of cocaine can be fatal, often as a result of a seizure or cardiac arrest.6 Cocaine is known to place stress on the heart, and using it just once can have devastating consequences for those who have an existing heart condition or who have certain cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity or high cholesterol.
Everyone is Using Cocaine
Similarly, because cocaine use may occur within the party scene, some people may mistakenly assume that everyone is using cocaine. This is simply not the case, as statistics show that less than one percent of the population aged 12 and above have used cocaine within the past month. Among those aged 18-25 (the range typically associated with college partying and nightlife), just under two percent of the population has used cocaine in the previous month. Crack cocaine use is even less common, with just 0.2% of the population reporting they have used it in the past month.
Cocaine Doesn’t Have Withdrawal
A third misconception surrounding cocaine addiction is that it does not result in withdrawal. While cocaine addiction typically doesn’t cause the same painful withdrawal often associated with opiates, it can produce strong psychological withdrawal symptoms. Cocaine use is highly rewarding because of its ability to increase levels of the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine, so when cocaine use is stopped, negative mental health effects are typically experienced. These psychological withdrawal symptoms may not appear as severe as physical symptoms like pain, diarrhea, and vomiting that occur when someone discontinues heroin use, but the anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances associated with cocaine withdrawal can be equally unpleasant.
Cocaine addiction is associated with a number of adverse health effects, and people may experience additional unpleasant effects when withdrawing from cocaine.
Common withdrawal symptoms include:
•Depression and anxiety
•Extreme cocaine cravings
There are other cocaine withdrawal symptoms such as sleep disturbances, frightening dreams, thinking difficulties, and increased appetite. Some people may find that they gain weight when withdrawing from cocaine.
Treatment for Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine is highly addictive, and abusing it can result in significant physical and mental health consequences. Fortunately, treatment is available for cocaine addiction.
Experts report that cocaine addiction treatment often involves psychological methods such as therapy. Two forms of therapy commonly used to treat cocaine addiction are cognitive behavioral therapy and contingency management programs. Sometimes these two therapeutic methods are used together. In cognitive behavioral therapy, people learn to challenge irrational thoughts and develop healthier ways of thinking. With contingency management programs, people receive incentives (such as money) when they are able to remain abstinent from cocaine.
Supportive Environments and Groups
According to NIDA, cocaine addiction treatment can also involve participation in groups such as 12-step meetings. Some people in recovery from cocaine addiction may reside in sober living communities with others who are also recovering. Regardless of the form of treatment, cocaine addiction services can occur on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. People with more severe addictions may complete inpatient treatment in hospitals or residential rehabilitation facilities, whereas those who have a less severe addiction and access to support and resources within the community can complete outpatient services. Intensive outpatient services, in which a person spends more time in treatment each week but still returns home at night, are a bridge between inpatient treatment and standard outpatient programs.
Medications may sometimes be used alongside other treatment methods for cocaine addiction, although NIDA reports that there are no pharmaceutical drugs currently approved specifically to treat cocaine use disorders. Regardless, some medications such as disulfiram prescribed to treat alcohol abuse, and modanifil, a narcolepsy medication, may be beneficial to those in recovery from cocaine addiction. The obesity drug lorcaserin may also be helpful in cases of cocaine abuse, and some people may benefit from taking buprenorphine, which is commonly used in cases of opiate addiction.
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