Side Effects of Cocaine
Like many drugs, cocaine’s “high” is a result of dopamine, specifically a buildup of the chemical.Last updated: June 1, 2018
To understand cocaine, we should understand dopamine.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical passed from one nerve cell to another (neurons). It’s known to cause pleasure, but pleasure is not limited to feeling good, there are a number of “rewards” that elicit pleasure, such as learning.
Dopamine’s Importance to Addiction
Understanding how dopamine works is incredibly important to understanding how an addiction happens. Dopamine is responsible for two key things in the brain which ultimately create a behavior.
- Creates motivation
- Creates a reward system
In regards to the first point, dopamine sets a threshold for you to initiate an action (i.e. motivation). The more dopamine an action provides, the less motivation is required for you to do it. As a result, if an activity’s output is elevated levels of dopamine (such as working out), then you experience an increase in willingness to perform said action. Moreover, the more dopamine that is released, the more motor function you have and the more impulsive you are. The impulsiveness is a consequence of the motivation. The brain knows the output of dopamine is high and therefore does not require intense “thought” to perform the action.
The second piece is a consequence of the first. Because you become motivated to initiate the action, dopamine also causes a form of conditioning to occur; in other words, the brain teaches the body what to expect, creating a reward system.
What these two elements do is create an appetite: motivation to acquire a reward. If it’s not altogether apparent, that’s the craving or desire to achieve the same effect; a habit; an addiction. Looking at this in a positive light, this is why exercise becomes more fun the more you do it. Conversely, this is why a drug like cocaine can create a debilitating condition that’s difficult to stop.
How Cocaine Works
Normally, dopamine will be passed from one neuron (nerve cell) to another. During this transmission, the dopamine releases that pleasurable sensation, but it doesn’t last long because the brain recycles the dopamine as opposed to letting it linger. This is so that it can be used later. In you, however, it means that when you see a commercial for a delicious meal, you initially feel that pull to eat it… but it doesn’t last and you’re able to move on.
When you use cocaine however, the “recycling” doesn’t happen. Instead the dopamine lingers between the two neurons. What’s more, more dopamine is sent through (as it normally would). This results in a build up of dopamine. In the same example, the craving for the meal on screen doesn’t lessen, but increases. The desire to go out and get it becomes stronger.
Short Term Effects of Cocaine
The short term effects include:
- Extreme sensitivity to touch, sound, and sight
- Euphoria or intense happiness
- Mood swings
- Increased irritability
Some side effects are more likely to occur than others depending on how you ingest cocaine. For example, HIV and hepatitis are common side effects if it’s primarily injected whereas bowel decay in most common when you swallow cocaine.
Long Term Effects of Cocaine
As with the short term effects, the long term effects differ depending on what form of cocaine is ingested. While many of the symptoms are reversible, some are not which is why it’s important to seek out help if you recognize there’s a problem. Some long term effects include:
- Heart attack
- Heart disease
- Cardiovascular damage
- Damage to the nose (if snorted)
- Damage to the mouth (if smoked/ingested)
- Chronic cough (if smoked)
- Eosinophilic pneumonitis (crack lung)
- Higher risk of infection
- Gastrointestinal damage
- Necrotic bowel
- Ischemic colitis
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Brain damage
- Cerebral atrophy
- Cerebral vasculitis
- Creation of mood disorders
- Motor skill dysfunction
- Increased risk of dementia
Cardiovascular damage is one of the main long term effects that’s incredibly debilitating and affects cocaine users regardless of how cocaine is taken. A consequence of cocaine is that it causes vasoconstriction while increasing blood pressure. This means your blood is pumping faster but through narrower channels. As a result, blood clots can form and be pushed through to your heart, lungs, or brain, resulting in pulmonic embolism, a stroke, or death. This can also causes heart arrhythmia, tachycardia, myocardial infarction, and death.