The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated in 2014 that 1.5 million Americans over the age of 12 were using cocaine each month, making it one of the more commonly abused drugs in the country.
Despite the drug’s popularity, cocaine has a dangerous and dark side that can cause tremendous damage to the body with chronic use. In fact, when someone learns just how cocaine can affect the human body, they might want to step away from the powder.
The Science behind the High
The most common way to ingest cocaine is to snort it or rub it on the gums, though some people smoke it or take it intravenously. When an individual snorts the drug, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal passages. The cocaine then stimulates the nervous system, raising levels of dopamine in the body. As dopamine is directly related to the brain’s pleasure center, this spike creates a feeling of euphoria in the individual, but the drug’s not done yet. Cocaine also prevents dopamine from leaving the pleasure stimulus and returning to the neuron from which it came. The result is a feeling of happiness, increased alertness, and a surge of energy – precisely what makes cocaine the drug of choice on the party scene.
However, the feel-good effects of cocaine do not last long. A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that snorting cocaine will produce a high that lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. Orally ingesting the drug – by rubbing it on the gums, for example – will lead to a longer high, but even that fades within an hour. In fact, NHTSA reports, “The faster the absorption the more intense and rapid the high, but the shorter the duration of action.” This fact can help to explain just how addictive cocaine can be; the more intense and short-lived a high, the more likely a person is to use more of the drug, often in a binge pattern.
- The Nose and Throat
Because many people ingest cocaine by snorting it, the nose is often among the areas that suffers the most. Many individuals experience nosebleeds after using cocaine, and chronic use can damage a person’s sense of smell. Exposing the delicate nasal tissue to this strong stimulant can also cause irreparable damage to the nasal cavity. Cocaine has been known to eat through the cartilage in the septum and even damage the bones in the nasal cavity’s sidewalls. The result is a permanent deformity known as a nasal septal perforation.
Once an individual’s nose is damaged, the effects of cocaine can spread down from the nasal cavity into the mouth and throat. This is why many people experience hoarseness or difficulty swallowing after years of heavy cocaine use. In some extreme cases, like one examined in the New England Journal of Medicine, cocaine can perforate the roof of the mouth, effectively connecting the mouth and nasal cavity and complicating everyday tasks like breathing or eating.
- The Bowels
While damage to the nose and mouth may be extensive, people often easily understand this cause and effect. After all, if someone puts a dangerous substance up their nose, their nose will likely suffer some consequences. But as already mentioned, cocaine use damages many parts of the body, even those one may not expect to be affected. A 2006 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine discussed one of the oft-forgotten systems that cocaine can wreak havoc on: the gastrointestinal system.
Many people experience cramping and diarrhea after using cocaine. This side effect is a delayed one, sometimes happening a full 48 hours after taking the drug, which is why it is often ignored as a symptom of drug-related complications. However, studies have shown that people who suffer from cocaine addictions regularly experience gastrointestinal damage, indicating a strong correlation between the two. Cocaine abuse can lead to mesenteric ischemia (a condition where the small intestine does not get enough blood), intraperitoneal hemorrhage (when the lining along the abdominal cavity and stomach ruptures and bleeds), and gangrene of the bowels.
The Metabolic System
There is a cruel irony to the way cocaine affects the body’s metabolic system. In the short-term, the drug curbs appetite and speeds up metabolism. The result tends to be drastic weight loss, which can be perceived as a good thing for the person taking the drug. In fact, many celebrities and models have cited a need to stay slim as the driving force behind their cocaine use. Still, it is important to recognize that cocaine is not a safe or healthy weight loss method. Once someone decides to begin recovery, they tend to learn this firsthand.
According to research from the University of Cambridge, cocaine use can dramatically alter one’s metabolism, making it faster and more effective. Once an individual begins treatment and stop using the drug, this metabolic change fades away. Because of this, some people gain excess weight while in recovery, and this can lead to frustration and relapse. As an individual goes through treatment for a cocaine addiction, it is important that they acknowledge this metabolic imbalance and take necessary steps to protect their physical and mental health throughout the recovery process.
The Cardiovascular System
Earlier, we touched on the short-term effects of cocaine use, which included a rise in blood pressure. This is a result of an increased heart rate – just one of the many effects cocaine has on the cardiovascular system. These side effects can be very severe; for example, NIDA reported in 2009 that cocaine abuse accounted for over 500,000 emergency room visits. The reasons for these visits are varied, but the cause remains the same.
A 2010 article in the journal Circulation reviewed the variety of ways that cocaine can damage the heart. The drug constricts the blood vessels, restricting oxygen flow and contributing to microvascular disease. Cocaine use can also lead to systolic and diastolic dysfunction (abnormal filling of the heart’s chambers), arrhythmias (an improper heartbeat), and in the very worst cases, congestive heart failure. These issues can become even greater if the person using cocaine has a heart condition.
Overcoming Cocaine’s Damage
Cocaine affects the body in a variety of ways, but the damage outweighs any potential benefits of use. In addition to the various negative effects on the brain and body, with each use of cocaine comes the risk of overdose and ultimately death.
If you are abusing cocaine, consider getting into treatment as soon as possible. Once an individual begins recovery, they have a greater chance of avoiding these dangerous side effects and enjoying a healthier, more productive life.