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Signs of a Cocaine Addiction


Cocaine, also called coke, powder, C, or blow, is a powerful psychoactive stimulant that alters brain chemistry and how we perceive the world around us. Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant, a species native to South America. The coca has been used for thousands of years as a stimulant that is either chewed or made into a tea.


At the turn of the 20th century, the active alkaloid cocaine was isolated from the coca plant creating the drug we know today. At first it was thought to be a wonder drug of sorts and was included as the active ingredient in many over-the-counter tonics and elixirs (believe it or not the soft drink Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine). As cocaine saw wider use its harmful effects started to make themselves known and as a result it has since been heavily regulated in many countries.


In modern times cocaine has become a popular party drug because it lowers inhibitions and creates a euphoric, carefree feeling in the user that can last anywhere from 15-90 minutes depending on how it is taken. Some statistics show that as many as 18 million people use cocaine worldwide. That’s quite a few.


Part of what makes cocaine so widespread is that there is a high potential for addiction – and related to that its high potential for overdose. Cocaine acts directly on the neural pathways in the brain, making it a significant threat to anyone who uses it. Habitual use of cocaine often leads to powerful addiction which can do significant mental and physical harm to those who find themselves dependent on it. In this article, we will explore how cocaine works, how it produces its high, and how cocaine addiction manifests. With that knowledge, you will be able to spot the signs of addiction in yourself or someone you know.

How Cocaine is Used


It is important to know that how cocaine is taken directly impacts how intense its physical and mental effects will be. The traditional use of the coca plant is to chew its leaves. This produces the mildest results as the leaves themselves do not contain very much of the active ingredient (cocaine itself) and the enzymes in saliva and acid in the stomach actually destroy a lot of the drug before it enters the blood. Cocaine also causes capillaries in the cheeks, gums, and tongue to constrict making it even harder for it to find its way into the bloodstream through ingestion.


The most common way to take the pure form of cocaine is to snort it. The fine powdered form of cocaine is best suited to this and is easily able to penetrate the mucus membrane of the nasal passages. This means the cocaine quickly enters the bloodstream and the high has a very fast onset. For an even faster onset than snorting cocaine is to smoking it. This requires a special form of cocaine called crack cocaine or rock cocaine that has been mixed with a base, usually baking soda, to form a solid form of the drug that can be freebased.


When the smoke and vapor of cocaine enters the lungs, it is absorbed into the bloodstream exceedingly quickly. The fastest onset is to directly inject cocaine that has been dissolved in water into the bloodstream. This gives the user and instant high. The rush is very intense, but the duration of the high is also shorter. In fact, that is generally true for each option: the faster the onset, the faster the cocaine is metabolized and the high wears off.


It is very uncommon for cocaine to be taken on its own because it is an expensive drug and its high is not particularity long. Alcohol is the number one choice of accompaniment to cocaine. This combination of cocaine and alcohol creates a new substance called cocaethylene. This substance acts in a similar way to cocaine but last longer. Most overdose cases are caused by this combination as the introduction of cocaethylene makes the user more sensitive to the effects of cocaine and alcohol, meaning it is easier to consume too much and end up in the emergency room.

How Cocaine Works in the Brain


To understand cocaine abuse and what it looks like we first half to understand how it works. The brain is made up of cells called neurons. These web-like cells act as a sort of relay system that sends sensory and motor signals through the nervous system. The part of a neuron that actually exchanges the signals is called an axon; think of these like wires connecting a phone network. Electrical signals called “action potentials” travel to the end of an axon which signals the release of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters into the space between two axons called the synapse. The neurotransmitters cross the synapse and are picked up by the axon of the postsynaptic neuron. In this way messages are relayed through the nervous system and give you the ability to perceive the world around you. If lying down on a soft pillow, the signals from the nerves in your cheek travel through the neural pathways and register the message “soft”. After the neurotransmitters have delivered their message they are released back into the synapse where they are either dissolved, dispersed, or returned back to the axon they came from through proteins called reuptake receptors.


So what happens when cocaine is introduced to this system? Right when a person takes cocaine, the drug triggers the release of a large number of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin and blocks the reuptake receptors throughout the neural pathways. This is the action that causes the “high” of cocaine. The parts of your brain that are responsible for rewarding behaviors that are healthy or necessary for survival (the parts of the brain that makes food delicious and sex feel good) are flooded with dopamine creating euphoric, pleasure and the emotional high of cocaine.


The part of a cocaine high that just feels good and makes a user temporarily giddy and happy. The excess of norepinephrine throughout the brain is responsible for the physical high, the burst of energy a user experiences as well as constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, increased body temperature, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. Finally, the increase in serotonin is connected with the cocaine users increased confidence and feelings of power or invincibility.


The brain is constantly monitoring your body’s systems and trying to maintain balance. Part of this process is the reuptake receptors in neurons. When neurotransmitters are done with their job, they’re either filtered out or returned to the reuptake receptors to be reused. The flood of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin created by cocaine and the imbalance caused by the blocking of reuptake receptors means the brain will respond to restore balance.


When a person uses cocaine regularly, the brain will notice the excess, the imbalance of dopamine, and reduce the number of dopamine receptors in the post synaptic neurons. This means fewer dopamine molecules can send their messages. The result is a habitual user will have to increase the amount of cocaine to experience the same high. This need to increase the dose to continue the high is called tolerance.


Developing a tolerance is something that is common to many types of drugs and drug users, but in cocaine it can often occur more quickly than in other types of intoxicant. Since cocaine has a short high, it is common for a person to binge on multiple doses at a time. Eventually the brain will grow tired of constantly trying to fix the imbalance and stop the production of dopamine all together. This means eventually a cocaine user will not feel high and will start to feel actively sick, or depressed, suffering what are called heroin withdrawal symptoms. It may reach the point where a user not only needs the drug to feel high but also needs it to feel normal. If a person reaches this point, they are considered physiologically dependent on cocaine. Tolerance and dependence are the two most significant causes of addiction.


Signs of Cocaine Addiction


Have you ever thought to yourself, “Am I addicted to Cocaine?” What you might notice before the signs of addiction are the signs of cocaine use. We’ve touched on some of the effects of cocaine so far but when observing a person who might be addicted to cocaine, you’ll want to know what a person who is high will act or look like. A cocaine high can have some or all of these symptoms:

⁃                    Increased energy

⁃                    Increased self esteem, over confidence, or boastfulness

⁃                    Elevated mood, they’re giggly or overtly affectionate

⁃                    Anxiety

⁃                    Paranoia

⁃                    Violent mood swings

⁃                    Hostility

⁃                    Aggression

Additionally some physical signs are:

⁃                    Profuse sweating

⁃                    Stammering

⁃                    Dilated pupils

⁃                    Runny nose or sniffling

Other obvious signs of cocaine use are white powder residue around the nose or on the body. Rolled up paper bills or cut straws are also a dead give away. Light bulbs are sometimes used to freebase and can be identified by discoloration and scorch marks.


Now, signs of cocaine use do not necessarily mean a person is abusing cocaine or addicted to it. Short term or even one time use of cocaine can result in most if not all of the above symptoms. However, when a person is dealing with dependence, with long term and compulsive use their behavior will change and the drug will begin a significant physical toll.


If a person is suffering from cocaine withdrawal, there is a good chance they are struggling with addiction. Some mild forms of cocaine withdrawal are:

⁃                    Fatigue

⁃                    Anxiety

⁃                    Reduced concentration

⁃                    Cravings

⁃                    Depression

⁃                    Excessive sleeping

⁃                    Vivid dreams

After a long relationship with cocaine, the withdrawal symptoms get worse. A cocaine addict without cocaine will have what is called a crash. While experiencing all of the above symptoms they may develop:

⁃                    Thoughts of suicide

⁃                    Nausea

⁃                    Vomiting

⁃                    Tremors

⁃                    Formication (the feeling of bugs crawling on or in the skin)

A person suffering serious cocaine withdrawals will have a hard time hiding it as the symptoms can become very severe. As stated before, if there are signs of withdrawal there is a high chance the person is addicted.


But what if there are no obvious signs of withdrawal? Cocaine addiction will cause behavioral changes that an otherwise “normal” person would be unlikely to exhibit. Some cocaine behavioral effects include that person may stop keeping their obligations, or maybe they become more and more absent from work. Or they may become more and more reclusive as the depression from a lack of cocaine sets in. Personal relationships that were strong may become strained or be abandoned altogether. They may suddenly be desperate for money where before they were not.


Cocaine is a very expensive drug and can cost as much as $90 a gram or more. A Person with a cocaine habit who is not fantastically wealthy will soon find themselves in a perilous economic situation. Severe cocaine addiction causes neurological damage, so the mood swings associated with a cocaine high might become commonplace; the formication, also called coke bugs, might cause an addict to itch constantly leaving them with multiple abrasions and lesions on their skin; snorting large amounts of cocaine also does serious damage to the nasal passages so a runny nose of a moderate user may turn into a chronically bleeding nose of an addict.


The stages of cocaine withdrawal are intense and it is common for a person addicted to be driven to great lengths to avoid it. If a person loses control of their addiction, in extreme cases they may resort to violent or criminal behavior to try to attain more. In the most extreme cases, cocaine can cause a psychological break similar to symptoms of schizophrenia with an addict experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, psychosis, intense paranoia, and a dissociation with reality.

Cocaine is a powerful drug and addiction to it is painful and incredibly difficult to overcome. There are options for someone who has lost control of their cocaine use both medical and therapeutic. When dealing with addiction, it is important to face it first by understanding what it is, expressing compassion for the person affected, and hope for recovery.


If you or a loved one is suffering from a cocaine addiction or any other illicit drug abuse for that matter, please know you are not alone. At Luminance Recovery, our Orange County rehab center treats a wide range of addictions to help those suffering regain their life back. Contact us today.          


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