Physical Effects of Cocaine
Cocaine is a central nervous stimulant that comes in several forms, including a powder that is snorted through the nasal passages and rocks which are smoked. The substances can be turned into a liquid form which is typically injected. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of cocaine on the human body range from mild to severe to life threatening, even with a single use of the powerfully addictive drug.1
Like all stimulants, cocaine enhances the “fight or flight” response system, which helps guide the body’s reactions to perceived stress or danger.2 In the right context, these responses can be of critical importance to an animal’s chance of survival, as long as the responses can be turned off when they are no longer needed. Cocaine inhibits the body’s ability to turn down its fight or flight response; thus, cocaine use can cause several dangerous physical conditions that often require prompt medical attention.2
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Increased Body Temperature: Cocaine-Induced Hyperthermia
If you or someone you know has ever used cocaine, you may have noticed that cocaine users tend to sweat. This is because the drug increases the body’s metabolism and thus raises body temperature. This effect on the body is similar to that of a car engine, wherein the engine’s temperature rises when the engine is revved harder. Cocaine use also tends to promote higher levels of physical activity, as it increases energy and the flow of glucose to muscles and tissues.2 Increased physical activity means that body temperature can rise even more.
Like all stimulants, cocaine enhances the “fight or flight” response system, which helps guide the body’s reactions to perceived stress or danger.
Heatstroke occurs when the internal body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit (or 40 degrees Celsius). Left untreated, heatstroke can cause brain damage and heart damage, and can lead to death. Cocaine users are much more likely to experience heatstroke, and when they do experience hyperthermia-related conditions, the rates of heatstroke complications and death appear to be considerably higher than those who experience heatstroke for other reasons.3,4
Heart Attack and Heart Disease
Numerous studies have shown that cocaine use can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in arteries.5,6,7 Coronary arteries, which supply the heart with its own blood, are particularly susceptible to the effects of cholesterol buildup. Cocaine stresses the heart, demanding it to pump faster and stronger. At the same time, cocaine constricts the nutrient flow from the coronary arteries to the heart muscle either temporarily (called vasospasm) or more permanently (through atherosclerosis). The heart is asked to do much more with much less. Ultimately, these stresses can result in a premature heart attack, or even a sudden heart attack as a direct result of using the drug.
Cocaine Is Not Attractive
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine use can cause several physical effects that can be rather unappealing. While these might not be the most important reasons to stop using cocaine, these physical symptoms can also cause medical complications down the road. For instance:8
- Nosebleeds: Use of cocaine via the nasal passages can eat away at the sensitive membranes in the nose, leading to chronic nosebleeds and loss of the ability to smell.
- Hoarseness: The caustic effect of cocaine can ruin one’s ability to speak clearly and comfortably.
- Paranoia: Chronic cocaine use can affect you psychologically as well as physically. Use of cocaine sometimes induces states of temporary psychosis, which can cause hallucinations and delusions.
- Bowel gangrene: Cocaine use reduces blood flow to the major digestive organs, which can cause the bowels to become gangrenous. This condition requires surgery and can result in severe abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, systemic infection, and death.
Using drugs is not glamorous. Using drugs like cocaine does not make you more beautiful or more fulfilled. Cocaine is a dangerous, addictive drug that can result in lifelong medical problems, coma, and death.
Cocaine and the Brain
When you use cocaine, regardless of the method, the end result is an increase in the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for communicating feelings of pleasure in the brain.9,10 Generally, it is produced when something pleasurable happens to us, such as hearing our favorite song or catching a whiff of apple pie.
When dopamine is released into the brain, we use the amount that we need to feel good, and the remainder is pulled back into the nerve cells that released it. Cocaine effectively blocks the re-uptake of the dopamine. The dopamine is now able to exert its influence on the brain and, as more dopamine is released, it accumulates without being cleared. This creates the “high” associated with cocaine. With repeated cocaine usage the brain adapts to the high levels of dopamine by turning down its own ability to create it.9,10 However, when the brain does this, it will not remember how to create dopamine, and the body will crave the cocaine to experience pleasure.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Commonly Abused Drugs Charts.
- Crandall C., Vongpatanasin, W., Victor, R.G. (2002). Mechanism of Cocaine-Induced Hyperthermia in Humans. Annals of Internal Medicine, 136(11), 785–791.
- Trifilieff, P., Martinez, D. (2014). Chapter Five – Cocaine: Mechanism and Effects in the Human Brain, The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Human Nervous System. Academic Press, p. 103-133.
- Levine, M., LoVecchio, F., Ruha A., Chu, G., Roque, P. (2012). Influence of drug use on morbidity and mortality in heatstroke. J Med Toxicol, 8(3), 252–257.
- Patrizi, R., Pasceri, V., Sciahbasi, A., Summaria, F., Rosano, G.M., Lioy, E. (2006). Evidence of Cocaine-Related Coronary Atherosclerosis in Young Patients With Myocardial Infarction. Journal of the American College of Cardiology; 47(10), 2120-2122.
- Flores, E.D., Lange, R..A., Cigarroa, R.G., Hillis, L.D. (1990) Effect of cocaine on coronary artery dimensions in atherosclerotic coronary artery disease: enhanced vasoconstriction at sites of significant stenoses. J Am Col Cardiol, 16(1), 74–79.
- Kolodgie, F.D., Virmani, R., Cornhill, J.F., Herderick, E.E., Smialek, J. (1991). Increase in atherosclerosis and adventitial mast cells in cocaine abusers: an alternative mechanism of cocaine-associated coronary vasospasm and thrombosis. J Am Coll Cardiol, 17(7), 1553-1560.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). DrugFacts: What is cocaine?
- Baik, J.H. (2013). Dopamine signaling in reward-related behaviors. Front Neural Circuits, 7, 152.
- Hernandez, L., Hoebel, B.G. (1988). Food reward and cocaine increase extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens as measured by microdialysis. Life Sci, 42(18), 1705-12.