Cocaine Overdose Symptoms and Effects
What Does a Cocaine Overdose Feel Like?
Symptoms of a cocaine overdose include chest pain, pronounced mood changes, seizures, and aggressive behavior. An overdose can damage the heart, liver, brain, and kidneys. Professional treatment can help a person recover from cocaine addiction and prevent future overdoses.
Addiction creates a level of self-delusion to maintain its hold on an individual. Many of those who suffer from addiction are able to convince themselves that “nothing bad will happen to me.” This type of self-deception can be especially problematic with cocaine use; the reality is that cocaine is one of the most dangerous drugs in the world because even a first-time user can overdose.
Second only to alcohol, cocaine accounts for the second most frequent reason for drug-related visits to emergency rooms across the U.S.1 A person who snorts, smokes, or injects too much cocaine can suffer from an overdose. To live through a cocaine overdose—or otherwise survive a life-threatening cocaine-related health scare—can be traumatizing, but can also serve as the motivation some users need to commit to treatment for cocaine addiction.
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The euphoric effects of cocaine are very short lived—lasting around 30 minutes, or possibly up to one hour with intranasal use;2 however, the effects on the body can last for many hours. Many overdoses occur because individuals continue to use more cocaine despite the fact that the initial bodily effects are still present—essentially stacking the deadly pharmacologic impact on their cardiovascular and other organ systems. Some may place themselves at further risk of overdose because they attempt to use an extremely large amount once their initial high has subsided. As users pursue the euphoric feeling they felt at the beginning of their cocaine use, they often don’t realize just how much of the drug they have taken.
A cocaine overdose requires immediate medical attention because it can be deadly. Common symptoms that indicate a person has used an excessive amount of cocaine include:3,4
- Frenetic levels of energy.
- Irritability, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia.
- Extreme mood changes: feelings of exhilaration followed by depression.
- Aggressive behavior.
- Panic attacks, paranoia.
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain.
- Talking excessively.
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature.
- Chest pain.
- Dizziness and/or fainting.
- Headaches, seizures, coma.
- Twitches or tremors in the arms and legs.
How an Overdose Affects Your Body
Cocaine effects arise from the drug’s interaction on a wide range of bodily processes. Cocaine’s immediate physical harm—and eventually its deadly impact—can originate from a number of affected organ systems throughout the body. There are four primary ways that cocaine affects the body:
- Increasing “fight or flight” responses (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure)
- Constriction of blood vessels
- Increasing metabolism
- Nervous system overactivity
Each of the following effects of cocaine on organ systems is a direct consequence of one of the above mechanisms.
A cocaine overdose has a massive effect on the heart. The user may have severe chest pain or chest pressure as the coronary arteries that feed blood to the heart constrict.5 With inadequate flow from the coronary arteries, the heart is being starved of blood and oxygen. As the heart reaches a crisis state, it begins to pump harder and faster to deliver more blood and compensate for its own poor supply, but it does so in vain due to the constricted arteries. The result is a deadly cycle which can ultimately lead to a heart attack or stroke, even if the person is healthy.
Blood pressure and heart rate will also dangerously spike during an overdose, which could also cause the heart to fail.6 If the user has high blood pressure or heart problems without the use of stimulants, the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke is much greater when stimulants are used. Additionally, irregular heart rhythms can occur with stimulant use, also leading to possible death.7
Cocaine overdose can also result in acute bronchospasm as well as a number of other more serious lung problems—such as pneumothorax (collapse of the lung). Some users—particularly those injecting the drug—are also at increased risk of thrombus (blood clot) development in the lungs.8
Problems in Other Body Organs
Other organs that incur damage from cocaine overdose may also include:9-11
Intestines & kidneys: perforated ulcers, insufficient blood supply, metabolic acidosis (from too much acid production.
Muscle and bones: life-threatening metabolic imbalances can result.
The eyes: pupil dilation and resultant changes in visual acuity, retinal vessel spasms and/or microvascular infarcts that may lead to vision loss.
The brain and central nervous system: seizures, coma, headaches, intracranial bleeding.
How Cocaine Overdose Affects Your Brain and Central Nervous System
As mentioned above, seizures and convulsions are common during a cocaine overdose, as the brain is acutely sensitive to toxic levels of the drug. As the more systemic cardiovascular consequences play out within the skull, blood vessels in the brain may rupture, and the user may suffer a lethal aneurysm or hemorrhagic stroke. In addition, dangerously increased transmission of catecholamines (hormones that put the body into “fight or flight” mode) results in a lot of nerve cell “miscommunication” during which the user may experience uncontrollable muscle movements such as shaking, jaw grinding, or teeth chattering.12
The legs and arms may feel shaky and weak. An increase in muscular activity can lead to a dangerously elevated body temperature. Eventually, the overtaxed muscles may seize up, to the point where the user may not even be able to yell for help.
If you can imagine watching your body go through these changes while feeling helpless that you can’t do anything to stop them, you will get a glimpse into the horrific way that survivors of cocaine overdose describe this experience.
Long-Term Effects of Overdose
When individuals survive a cocaine overdose, both their physical and mental health may be affected forever. They may experience severe damage to major organs such as the heart, liver, lungs, brain and kidneys. Extensive damage can also occur to the intestines, to reproductive organs as well as to a developing fetus in pregnant women who use cocaine.7
The mental trauma of a cocaine overdose can also change the way that the user thinks and feels even if they successfully quit using the drug. They may suffer psychosis, paranoia, panic attacks, tremors, and delusions.13,14
Finding Treatment for Your Addiction
If you or someone you know struggles with an addiction to cocaine, it’s important that you get the information and the help that you need. And it’s better to reach out for help before an overdose occurs.
If you have already survived this near-death experience, you have been blessed with a second chance. Take full advantage of it and learn more about how you can overcome your addiction.
Treatment Center Types
There are a few different types of addiction treatment centers that are available to help walk you through the rehabilitation process:
- Luxury treatment centers offer residential addiction rehabilitation alongside high-end luxuries and resort-like amenities.
- Executive treatment centers offer many of the same luxurious amenities found in luxury rehab treatment but also cater to busy professionals who need to maintain an active presence in their place of work.
- Standard rehabilitation programs also offer high quality rehabilitation treatment—both on an inpatient and on an outpatient basis. While these programs do not come with the wide array of high-end amenities offered in luxury and executive treatment, they also cost less and prove to be a more affordable option for those on a budget.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
- Cone, E. J. (1995). Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of cocaine. J Anal Toxicol, 19(6), 459.
- Mayo Clinic. (2017). Drug addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?
- Hollander, J. E., Hoffman, R. S., Gennis, P., Fairweather, P., DiSano, M. J., Schumb, D. A., et al. (1994). Prospective multicenter evaluation of cocaine-associated chest pain. Acad Emerg Med., 1(4), 330.
- Koppel, B. S., Samkoff, L., Daras, M. (1996). Relation of cocaine use to seizures and epilepsy. Epilepsia, 37(9), 875.
- Khan, R., Morrow, L.J., McCarron R. (2009). How to manage medical complications of the five most abused substances. Current Psychiatry, 8(11), 35-47.
- Kugelmass, A. D., Oda, A., Monahan, K., Cabral, C., Ware, J. A. (1993). Activation of human platelets by cocaine. Circulation, 88(3), 876.
- Pecha, R. E., Prindiville, T., Pecha, B. S., Camp, R., Carroll, M., Trudeau, W. (1996). Association of cocaine and methamphetamine use with giant gastroduodenal ulcers. Am J. Gastroenterol., 91(12), 2523.
- Goldfrank, L. R., Flomenbaum, N. E., Hoffman, J. R., et al. (2006). Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies, 8th E. McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing Division.
- Libman, R. B., Masters, S. R., de Paola, A., Mohr, J. P. (1993). Transient monocular blindness associated with cocaine abuse. Neurology, 43(1), 228.
- Enevoldson, T.P. (2004). Recreational drugs and their neurological consequences. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 75(3), 9-15.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are the long-term consequences of cocaine use?
- Spronk D.B., van Wel J.H.P., Ramaekers J.G., Verkes R.J. (2013). Characterizing the cognitive effects of cocaine: a comprehensive review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 37(8):1838-1859.