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Cocaine Facts: Addiction Signs & Symptoms

A Short History of Cocaine

Cocaine is cultivated from the indigenous coco plant of South America. For thousands of years, the Native Americans in the Andean region of South America chewed coca leaves for medicinal purposes. Natives still can legally sell small amounts of coca leaves at markets for chewing and making tea, and the leaves continue to play an integral role in religious ceremonies. In 1860, German chemist Dr. Albert Niemann isolated cocaine hydrochloride from leaves of cultivated cocaine. By the 1880s, cocaine was used in eye, nose and throat surgery for its anesthetic properties. Once its psychoactive properties were discovered, it was widely dispensed for anxiety, depression and to treat morphine addiction.1 It was widely available in tonics, powders, wines and soft drinks for its highly touted but exaggerated curative properties.2

Early in his career, Sigmund Freud was a huge proponent of cocaine, starting experiments in 1884. Despite a failed and ultimately fatal experiment using cocaine to wean his best friend off of morphine, Freud took the drug for 12 years, entrapped by its addictive grip.2 By the early 1900s, public health officials were aware of the medical, psychiatric and social problems associated with excessive cocaine use. The concerns surrounding cocaine played an important role in passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which severely restricted the legal use of cocaine. For all practical purposes, this legislation ended the extensive use and abuse of cocaine in the early part of the 20th century. Moreover, the advent of amphetamine in the 1930s nearly eradicated the demand for cocaine.1

Two Cocaine Epidemics

Cocaine abuse began rising again in the 1960s, leading Congress to classify it as a Schedule II drug in 1970.3 During the 1970s, cultural experimentation was rampant. Edgy, daring trends in music, fashion, art, filmmaking and pop psychology were all the rage and hedonistic pursuits became an accepted form of self-expression. In this mercurial climate, it was inevitable that people’s attitudes about drug use changed. While drugs were once considered morally degenerate, the disco era ushered in a new attitude in which drugs were perceived as just another way to have a good time. This complacent attitude helped pave the way for the infamous 1970s cocaine epidemic, when the drug established itself as the ultimate party drug. Artists, rockers, and movie stars rubbed shoulders with wannabes at chic discos like Studio 54 in New York City, while others snorted cocaine in far less glamorous settings.4

During the cocaine epidemic of the 1970s, crack cocaine, a crystallized form of the drug, was developed and its use spread in the mid-1980s. By the end of the 1970s, there was a glut of cocaine powder being shipped into the U.S., causing the street price to drop by as much as 80%. Drug dealers converted the powder to crack and broke it into small chunks or “rocks,” which were sold in smaller quantities and at a greater profit. The second cocaine epidemic in modern times occurred from 1984 and 1990, when crack abuse spread across American cities. The relatively low price and availability of crack dramatically increased the number of Americans addicted to cocaine. In 1985, the number of people who admitted using cocaine on a routine basis increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million.5

Cocaine Abuse Facts and Stats

In 2014, there were an estimated 1.5 million current (past-month) cocaine users ages 12 or older in the U.S., of which 913,000 met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ criteria for a cocaine use disorder. In the same time period, people ages 18 to 25 used cocaine more than any other age group, with 1.4% of young adults reporting past-month cocaine use. The good news is that there has been a significant decline in 30-day prevalence of powder cocaine use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders from peak use in the late 1990s.6

Despite major decreases in cocaine use, 505,224 of nearly 1.3-million drug abuse-related emergency room visits were attributed to cocaine. Even worse, from 2001 to 2014, there was a 42% increase in the total number of cocaine overdose deaths with a peak high of about 7,500 deaths in 2006. While present trends in cocaine use are far more encouraging than during either of the two modern-day cocaine epidemics, there are still hundreds of thousands of teens ingesting this potent chemical, putting themselves at grave risk for lethal consequences.6

How Cocaine Impacts the Brain

A powerful central nervous stimulant, cocaine interferes with and causes excessive amounts of dopamine to be produced in the brain. A neurotransmitter related to pleasure and movement, dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This overstimulation induces feelings of euphoria and happiness, increased energy and heightened self-confidence. The effects of cocaine are short-lived and people rapidly develop tolerance to its effects. Over time, users must ingest progressively larger doses of the drug more often to attain an intensely pleasurable high.3,7

The connection between cocaine use and aneurysm-like bleeding and stroke has been known since the first cocaine-induced stroke was reported in 1977. The exact details of how cocaine impacts the brain’s blood vessels have remained elusive. Using a laser-based method to measure how cocaine disrupts blood flow in the brains of mice, researchers now have clues as to how cocaine induces microischemia, a precursor to stroke. This is a condition in which there is insufficient blood flow to the brain to meet metabolic demand, albeit to a smaller degree than brain ischemia. The images reveal that after 30 days of chronic cocaine injection or even after repeated acute injection of cocaine, there is a dramatic drop in blood flow speed.8

Signs of Cocaine Addiction

As addiction develops, users can experience a wide range of cocaine symptoms and health problems related to escalating drug consumption. Some of the most common short-term side effects include increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure; narrowed blood vessels; enlarged pupils; headache; abdominal pain and nausea; euphoria; increased energy; alertness; insomnia; restlessness; anxiety; erratic and violent behavior; panic attacks; paranoia; psychosis; heart rhythm problems; heart attack; stroke; seizure and coma. Long-term use can result in a loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, nasal damage, trouble swallowing from snorting, infection and death of bowel tissue from decreased blood flow, poor nutrition and weight loss from decreased appetite. Heavy cocaine use can eventually lead to death due to cardiac arrest, although even first-time users have lost their lives from overdosing.9

Prolonged use of cocaine can result in “crashing,” which is characterized by anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability and thoughts of suicide. Other common cocaine withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, nightmares, a general feeling of discomfort and extremely strong cravings for the drug.10 Cocaine dependent users have a statistically higher risk for other substance use disorders, as well as personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depressive disorders. That makes the mental health aspects of cocaine withdrawal particularly complex.11

Recovery From Cocaine Abuse

Just as cocaine use reached epidemic proportions several decades ago, the nation is grappling with a deadly opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 190,000 lives in the U.S. since 1999.12 Although cocaine is no longer the drug of choice for youth, it has not completely disappeared from the drug scene and perhaps never will. Vigilance on the part of parents and adults is essential. Any adolescent who is using cocaine despite the dire consequences needs professional help. If you suspect that your teenager is using cocaine or any other drugs, The Right Step can help — give us a call today at 1-844-756-2656.

  1. History of Cocaine Use in the United States. Neuro Soup website http://www.neurosoup.com/history-of-cocaine-use-in-the-united-states/ Accessed August 20, 2016.
  2. Sigmund Freud’s cocaine problem. The Chart/CNN website http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/22/sigmund-freuds-cocaine-problem/ Published July 22, 2011. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  3. Cocaine (powder) Center for Substance Abuse Research website. http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/cocaine.asp Accessed August 20, 2016.
  4. The History of Cocaine & Its Effects on the Environment. I Love Recovery Café website. http://iloverecovery.com/the-history-of-cocaine-its-effects-on-the-environment/ Published April 22, 2016. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  5. Crack Cocaine: A Short History. http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/crackcocaine/a-short-history.html Foundation for a Drug-Free World website. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  6. What is the scope of cocaine use in the United States? National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-scope-cocaine-use-in-united-states Updated May 2016. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  7. Cocaine History and Statistics. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/cocaine-history-and-statistics/#cocaine-s-effects-on-the-body-and-brain Accessed August 20, 2016.
  8. Your brain on cocaine: Researchers photograph the devastating effect drug has on bloodflow in the brain for first time. Daily Mail website. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2737103/Your-brain-cocaine-Researchers-photograph-effect-drugs-bloodflow-brain-time.html Published August 28, 2014. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  9. Commonly Abused Drugs Charts. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts  Updated April 2016. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  10. Cocaine withdrawal. Medline Plus website. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000947.htm  Updated April 13, 2015. Accessed August 20, 2016.
  11. Haasen C, Prinzleve M, Gossop M, Fischer G, Casas M. Relationship between cocaine use and mental health problems in a sample of European cocaine powder or crack users. World Psychiatry. 2005 Oct;4(3):173-6.
  12. Ryan H, Girion L, Glover S. “You Want a Description of Hell?” OxyContin’s 12-Hour Problem. Los Angeles Times. May 5, 2016. http://static.latimes.com/oxycontin-part1/ Accessed August 20, 2016.
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