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Cocaine Addiction

Written by
Trey Dyer
Edited by
Kim Borwick, M.A.
Featured Expert
Jason Fields, M.D.
This page features
15 Cited Research Articles

Cocaine is an illicit stimulant that comes in powder form. It causes rapid, dramatic boosts in happiness and energy, but it also causes dangerous side effects, such as rapid heartbeat, tremors and a risk of deadly overdose. The prevalence of cocaine has dropped in recent decades, but it remains a common drug of abuse in many communities.

  • Drug Name Cocaine
  • Addiction Liability High
  • Scientific Name Benzoylmethylecgonine
  • Street Names Coke, Blow, White, Yayo, Snow
  • How It's Used Snorted, Injected, Smoked
  • Side Effects Appetite Loss, Weight Loss, Impotence, Irritability, Headaches, Reproductive Damage, Convulsions and Seizures
  • Psychological Dependence Very High
  • Physical Dependence Very High

Cocaine found its way into the drug world as a preferred substance for late nights at the club. The extreme levels of energy and rush of happiness associated with it are inherently appealing to young adults in party situations.

Yet over the years, its popularity evolved beyond the club and into the home and office to the point that cocaine addiction affects people of all ages and all walks of life.

Cocaine went from being something that was surreptitiously snorted off of toilet stalls in these kind of grimy clubs to something that was being done on table tops in chic restaurants by investment bankers.

Jay McInerney, ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ Novel Author

A large percentage of drug abusers develop a fixation on cocaine or any one of a variety of similar drugs. Pure cocaine is quite a rare find on the streets, but you can find any number of closely related synthetic drugs on the market at any given time. These drugs all affect the user in the same general way – a burst of dopamine that delivers a feeling of euphoria that lasts only for a short period.

Once that high subsides, a craving for more takes over. That desire can be so strong that people will ignore cocaine’s dangerous side effects – higher risks of heart attacks, strokes, nose bleeds and other short- and long-term side effects – by continuing to use it. Cocaine is one of the most prevalent drugs in drug-related deaths, causing between 5,000 and 6,000 unintentional deaths a year.

Cocaine Use in the U.S.

Source: 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Nearly 52 million Americans over the age of 25 admitted to having tried cocaine at least once, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In 2013, it was reported that 1.6 million people age 12 or older were current cocaine users.

In a two-year study of cocaine dependence risk, researchers found that average cases of addiction develop during one year for regular users, spanning from the onset of their use to their eventual dependency. Subjects age 21-25 were most at risk for this dependency, as were female subjects and non-Hispanic African-Americans.

Although fun for some people, coke’s potential dangers outweigh its rewards by a staggering distance. It has no health benefits. Getting involved with cocaine can immediately send you and your loved ones down a slippery slope.

Seeking help for cocaine addiction?

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Signs of Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine addicts typically show impulsive behavior, often to an alarming degree. People who get hooked find their real life – working a job, taking care of a family or even just themselves – takes a back seat to the pursuit of finding and taking more coke. Like alcoholism, cocaine addiction spawns irrational decisions and increasingly destructive behaviors.

Unfortunately, you may not realize you’re hooked on coke until it’s too late.

I was using quite a bit of cocaine – to the point where little by little it was deteriorating my septum and to the point where my nose was completely flat.

Amira Dominguez Guerra, Recovering Addict

In a large number of cases, a persistent, compulsive binge of the drug leads addicts into a crisis, which in turn triggers treatment or arrest. This cycle has landed cocaine the nickname “The Great Precipitator.”

In addition to impulsivity, noticeable symptoms of coke addicts are:

Other symptoms can include a form of psychosis incited from excessive cocaine use, and depression in periods when the drug isn’t being consumed.

Implications and Side Effects

Using cocaine means dealing with any number of side effects, some of which are life-threatening. In short, cocaine delivers a direct hit to the heart.

It causes blood pressure and heart rate to elevate, and it can interrupt heart rhythm, putting someone at high risk for heart attack. Evidence exists of heart failure and death among first-time users of cocaine. However, there’s no such thing as a definitive amount of coke that’s life-threatening. For some, the amount is one sniff.

Cocaine Increases Risk of Heart Attacks

Cocaine can put you at high risk for a heart attack, even as a first-time user.

Even the most casual coke user carries a high risk of addiction. The drug alters the brain (specifically, its reward pathway) and creates a reward-at-all-costs demand for more. People who take the drug show an increased emotional reaction to memories of its high and, eventually, instinctually crave a repeat.

Over time, the body develops a tolerance, causing more and more of the drug to be necessary for the user to feel its effects.

Various other side effects come along with cocaine use, contingent on the method in which the drug is taken. Snorting cocaine – the most common method – can cause issues with swallowing, hoarseness, nosebleeds, and chronic runny nose. Alternatively, users who ingest cocaine are susceptible to bowel gangrene, a life-threatening condition of the intestines in which their blood supply is permanently damaged.

Cocaine causes a number of other side effects, including:

Help and Treatment for Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine addiction affects the lives of millions around the globe, yet despite decades of research, no FDA-approved medication exists to fight the problem. But from therapists and counselors trained to identify and work through this specific disease, help is out there.

How Lee Found Sobriety

Music and cocaine were a way of life for Lee until the coke took over and forced him to reevaluate everything he knew.

Read His Story

Counseling and Therapy

Counselors form a caring, compassionate bond with souls in need of help breaking out of their habit. They use their deft understanding of the drug and the culture surrounding it to identify the symptoms in users and talk them through the most difficult parts of recovery. They also provide a vital friendship to people who oftentimes have nowhere else to turn.

“As I used $4,000 a week in cocaine I never realized I was actually addicted. I thought I just used drugs to get through my day,” said Donna Mae Depola, a recovered addict who became a substance abuse counselor who helps others work through the disease. “There are so many miracles in this field. I try and concentrate on the successes we see and hope that the clients that are still using will come back and get help before it is too late.”

As in Donna’s case, many of these therapists were once addicts themselves. Their stories are a shining example of how recovery is possible, and it’s never too late to seek it out.

Treatment centers

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco released a study on cognitive behavioral therapy as a means of treating cocaine addiction. Researchers tracked behaviors of a select group of cocaine-dependent subjects before, during and after treatment. Compared to other forms of treatment, these focused therapy sessions yielded the best results, with many of the participants achieving long periods of abstinence from cocaine once the sessions ended.

Addiction Treatment Center

Addiction treatment centers around the country offer cocaine-specific behavioral therapy, the safest and most proven method to combat cocaine addiction.

Motivational incentives are a common module in therapy sessions for cocaine addiction. Patients are presented with rewards, or prizes, when they show successful periods of abstinence from drug use. This form of therapy targets the reward centers of the brain, which have grown reliant on the chemical rewards of cocaine. These motivational incentives have shown to be effective in community treatment programs.

Addiction treatment centers around the country offer cocaine-specific behavioral therapy, the safest and most proven method to combat the symptoms of cocaine addiction.

12-Step Programs

In general, 12-step programs are less effective than behavioral therapy in helping addicts recover. In that 1998 study, addicts who attempted 12-step programs were less successful in their abstinence from cocaine than those who took part in therapy.

Still, these one-day-at-a-time programs may mean all the difference in the battle against this destructive habit. The vocal sharing of issues, lives, lifestyles, problems and solutions provides group members the comfort that they are not alone, that others seek the same recovery.

It was the first place I could talk properly about my substance abuse without fear of being judged.

“They definitely changed my life,” said one anonymous member to the UK’s Courier.

Other Therapies and Medications

Researchers studied acupuncture therapy for its possible impact on cocaine dependence, and a 2002 study published in the Journal of American Medicine was inconclusive.

No definitive medication targets cocaine addiction’s neurological effects. Focus shifted to the development of vaccines that attack cocaine as it enters the body. When successful, these vaccines initiate development of antibodies that neutralize cocaine in the bloodstream, and prevent it from entering the brain.

Initial tests of the vaccines created antibodies but ultimately proved ineffective in treating any of the subjects’ addictions. Neurological urges to take the drug remained (and in some cases even intensified). The vaccine prevented the brain from believing it received a coke fix, leading to people overcompensating by taking increased doses.

Ready to break the cycle?

Learn about our medication-assisted cocaine detox and recovery programs.


Regular cocaine users will commonly exhibit withdrawal symptoms, ranging from minor to severe, once they stop using the drug. The intensity and length of these reactions is directly related to how heavily and how often a given user partakes in the substance.

A typical withdrawal period from cocaine can involve any number of the following:

Cocaine addicts often relapse as they attempt to get clean, due to extreme changes in the brain’s composition. Any number of stressors in the recovering addict’s life can spark a need in the brain to receive the drug. The drug is notorious for taking this firm grasp of the user’s life, causing them to come running back for another fix after any real attempt at going clean. The faster you can find qualified help for someone dealing with this dependency, the more you improve their chances of avoiding relapse and any further damage.

Comforting a Family Member

Your patience may be pushed to the limits as you help an addict work through their recovery, but they stand an immeasurably better chance of succeeding with your love and encouragement.

Research shows that educating cocaine users is a crucial element in helping them avoid relapse. Helping to make them aware of high-risk situations, identify social cues that affect them and instilling in them new coping habits to replace their reliance on the drug are all beneficial towards relapse prevention. Any relapse should also be treated as a learning experience as opposed to a crime deserving of guilt or punishment.

Your patience may be pushed to the limits as you help an addict work through their recovery, but they stand an immeasurably better chance of succeeding with your love and encouragement.

Kim Borwick, M.A.
Kim Borwick, M.A., Editor,
Featured Expert
Jason Fields

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