Cocaine Abuse and Dependence

What is cocaine abuse and dependence?

Cocaine is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which grows in South America. It is a type of drug called a stimulant, which means it increases alertness and energy. Cocaine can be inhaled through the nose in powder form (“snorting”), injected into a vein, or smoked. Crack, a less expensive form of cocaine that is smoked, has made cocaine abuse a widespread problem.

Cocaine abuse and dependence is a pattern of using cocaine that leads to serious personal, family and health problems. Abuse is when you keep taking cocaine even though it causes a problem such as:

  • Showing up late or missing work or school and not caring about things that used to matter to you
  • Breaking rules or breaking the law
  • Not keeping promises, arguing, or even getting violent with other people
  • Doing things that are dangerous, such as driving while under the influence

If you continue to abuse cocaine, you can become dependent. When you are dependent on cocaine, you:

  • Need to use more and more cocaine or use it more often to get the same effects
  • Lose control, which means you keep using cocaine even though you know that it is harmful to you or others or you can’t stop using cocaine when you try
  • Crave drugs so much that you spend a lot of time and energy getting drugs, using drugs, and getting over the effects
  • Have withdrawal symptoms when you stop using cocaine

Dependence is also called addiction. Cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs. If you use cocaine a few times, you can become dependent.

What is the cause?

The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Cocaine changes the balance of these chemicals in your brain. When you use cocaine regularly, your brain starts to get used to it. As a result you don’t feel good unless you use cocaine. When you stop using cocaine suddenly, the balance of chemicals in your brain changes, which causes the symptoms of withdrawal.

You have a higher risk of becoming dependent on drugs if you:

  • Have a family history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Have abused alcohol or drugs in the past
  • Are easily frustrated, have trouble dealing with stress, or feel like you aren’t good enough
  • Are regularly around people who use alcohol or drugs
  • Have a mental health problem
  • Have constant pain

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of cocaine abuse or dependence depend on how much and how often you take the drug. The symptoms can be mild to severe, such as:

  • Being overexcited, nervous, or having extra energy
  • Having belly pain, nausea, or loss of appetite
  • Talking and thinking fast, called “speeding”
  • Having a fast heartbeat or sweating
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling something that is not there
  • Thinking that others are out to get you when they are not

If you snort cocaine, you may have:

  • Sores or broken skin in or around your nose
  • Nosebleeds
  • A constant runny nose

If you smoke cocaine, you may have symptoms such as a cough or mucus in your lungs.

You may also have symptoms of new or worse health problems caused by cocaine use. Cocaine may cause:

  • An irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Stroke
  • Seizures

The symptoms of cocaine withdrawal can be mild to severe. You may have some of these symptoms when you stop taking cocaine:

  • Nervousness and restlessness
  • Depression
  • Cravings for cocaine
  • Sleep problems

The feelings that you get from cocaine only last a short time. This causes you to crave more cocaine to get the feelings back. You may binge, which means you take large amounts of cocaine for several days. The binge is followed be a “crash,” where you feel very sad and depressed. Then you start all over again. This pattern of cocaine use can lead to an overdose. A cocaine overdose can be life threatening.

Pregnant women using cocaine are at high risk of having a miscarriage. Babies born to cocaine-dependent mothers are addicted at birth. The baby will be jittery and will not respond well to people. Cocaine dependent babies have to go through the painful process of withdrawal.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask how much and how often you use cocaine. Be honest about your drug use. Your provider needs this information to give you the right treatment. He will also ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have blood or urine tests. Your provider may also check for heart problems with an ECG (also called an EKG or electrocardiogram), which measures and records your heartbeat.

How is it treated?

Cocaine abuse and dependence can be treated. For any treatment to be successful, you must want to stop using cocaine. When you stop using cocaine, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help you get through withdrawal symptoms. Do not try to use alcohol and other drugs to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

If you are abusing or dependent on cocaine and want to quit, get help.

Self-help groups such as Cocaine Anonymous, support groups, and therapy may be helpful. You might be treated in a substance abuse treatment program. Your healthcare providers and counselors will work with you to develop a treatment program. If this therapy does not work, you may need treatment in a hospital or a treatment center. You may need to stay for several weeks, or you may be able to go in each day.

Recovery from dependence is a long-term process. Follow-up treatment is very important so that you don’t go back to abusing drugs.

If you have overdosed, or are having severe withdrawal symptoms you will need to be treated in a hospital.

How can I take care of myself?

The best way to help yourself is to see your healthcare provider and make plans to stop taking cocaine. If you are already seeing a healthcare provider, it is important to take the full course of treatment he or she prescribes.

  • Get support. Talk with family and friends. Consider joining a support group in your area.
  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Take care of your physical health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet. Limit caffeine. If you smoke, quit. Don’t use alcohol or drugs. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Avoid situations where people are likely to use alcohol or drugs.
  • Check your medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that you take.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your symptoms seem to be getting worse.
  • Keep trying. Many people try more than once to quit using cocaine before they finally succeed. So, never say, “I can’t.” You CAN learn to live without cocaine in your daily life.

People and resources in your community that can help you include your healthcare providers, therapists, support groups, mental health centers, and alcohol or substance abuse treatment programs. You may want to contact:

  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-05
Last reviewed: 2014-03-14
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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