What Are the Long-term Risks of Cocaine Use?
The number of people who use cocaine has remained stable since 2009, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Every month, about 1.5 million people use this drug, either by smoking it, sniffing it, or eating it. Every person who abuses cocaine — regardless of the method — is doing something that could lead to long-term disaster. These are just a few of the consequences attached to the use and abuse of cocaine.
Cocaine is a stimulant drug, and when it enters a person’s body, it triggers a series of chemical reactions that result in a boost in release and uptake of a chemical called adrenaline. This chemical is used in the body’s fight-or-flight system, and it is responsible for the sense of power and invincibility people feel when they take cocaine. But adrenaline can also cause the heart to speed up, and that makes cocaine very dangerous for the heart.
The American Heart Association calls cocaine the perfect “heart attack drug,” as its ability to speed the heart can lead to a heart attack after just one dose. But people who keep using the drug over the long-term may have even more heart-health issues. With prolonged use, cocaine can stiffen both arteries and heart muscle. That makes the heart work harder every day, even as it gets weaker. Some young cocaine users could have hearts that resemble those of elderly individuals, simply due to their ongoing drug abuse.
Just as cocaine can stiffen and shrink blood vessels in and around the heart, the drug can also shrink and stiffen other blood vessels that come into contact with the drug. That is a special concern for people who sniff cocaine, since that action puts the drug’s molecules in close contact with delicate vessels in the nose and sinuses. Those vessels can close up and die off with time, which can lead to:
- Sinus pain
- Collapsed nasal passages
- Inability to smell
People who smoke cocaine may not fare better. Cocaine products can still cause tissue damage, and cocaine smoke can be deadly for the lungs. People who smoke the drug may exacerbate underlying health conditions that impact the lungs, including asthma or bronchitis. They may develop a chronic cough that is difficult or impossible to treat.
Shooting cocaine with a needle is similarly risky. Every drug dose injected with a needle leaves a bit of tissue damage behind, and sometimes, those drug doses work as perfect vectors for infection. People who inject repeatedly may find that they develop ulcers near their infection sites, and they may have blood vessels that have closed down altogether. That can lead to widespread problems that might result in the need for amputation.
Mental Health Concerns
The organs and blood vessels are not the only things that can be damaged with cocaine abuse. The brain can also suffer both direct and indirect injury due to an ongoing cocaine habit. The damage done here might be hard to overcome.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that cocaine works on the stress signals inside of the brain, meaning that a brain on cocaine is a lot like a brain dealing with a life-threatening problem. In time, brain cells can die off or burn out due to the constant stress. This damage makes people unable to deal with routine stress. When they feel stress, they feel a spike in cravings for cocaine.
A brain that is consistently under stress and pressure can become a brain that cannot power down at night. That means people who have a longstanding cocaine abuse problem can become people who can no longer fall asleep quickly nor sleep through the night without waking up. According to an article in Medscape, medications can be used to help people to fall asleep and stay asleep. But some people with a longstanding cocaine habit may need to stay on these medications for quite some time, as they may not be able to sleep otherwise. Some of these medications can be habit-forming or even addictive. Some people may develop secondary addictions due to a need to get sleep.
In addition to feeling under stress and pressure, a brain exposed to cocaine can also feel pushed to the limit with joy. The drug has the ability to boost the production and uptake of a brain chemical called dopamine. That is the chemical signal the brain uses to signal that something wonderful and rewarding is happening. When people take cocaine, they feel that signal all the time. That constant presence of dopamine can cause the circuits to burn out. In time, people with a cocaine addiction may be physically incapable of feeling joy unless the drug is available to them.
When people attempt to get sober, that sense of depression may not entirely disappear. The Australian Government Department of Health says that depression can be consistent and lifelong for people who have abused cocaine for a very long period of time.
In addition to ruining mental health and physical health, cocaine can have a deep impact on a person’s ability to connect with others. For example, a cocaine habit can be very expensive, and that could prompt people to make terrible decisions involving finances. As the addiction deepens and people need to take more cocaine to feel the same effect, they might:
- Miss mortgage payments, prompting foreclosure of a home
- Steal from family members
- Miss car payments, forcing repossession
- Cause a family bankruptcy
Cocaine addictions can also be time-consuming, forcing people to miss out on work and other obligations so they can get cocaine, use it, and recover from a binge. People might begin to miss work due to a need to use drugs, and that could ruin a family’s sense of security and confidence.
As the addiction deepens, the family might also be forced to step up and play a bigger role in all sorts of routine obligations. Families might be forced to cover up for the addiction with the person’s neighbors, friends, or relatives. Families might need to get additional jobs to pay back debt, and they might grow weary of the endless lies that come with an addiction lifestyle.
All of these little wounds can cause families to lose touch with the love and respect they once had for the person with the addiction. That could cause the death of the family itself.
Cocaine can cause a great deal of damage, especially for people who continue to use for months or even years at a time. But there are solutions available for people who choose to use them. Those solutions can deliver impressive and even profound results.
For example, in a study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers measured cocaine abuse over a 12-year timespan, examining people who had an addiction to cocaine. At the end of the study, people who got treatment were much more likely to be sober than people who did not get treatment. This is not an addiction people can outgrow or wish away. This is a persistent addiction that requires a qualified treatment program.
There are programs made just for people addicted to cocaine. Here, people work with a qualified counselor in order to understand how the addiction began and how it developed. In therapy, they build skills they can use to combat the next cocaine craving, and they repair the damage done by cocaine. Rehab can be a life-changing experience, and it can begin now.