Cocaine Addiction: Side Effects and Withdrawals

Cocaine is powerfully addictive. It’s a stimulant that, like many drugs, circulated among medical professionals well before it reached the general population. In 1884, William Stewart Halsted became the first physician to use cocaine as an anesthetic in surgery, however, Halsted also liked to use cocaine to enhance his performance in the operating theatre. He soon became the first cocaine-addicted physician on record. Sigmund Freud, the famous psychiatrist, was also a prevalent cocaine abuser. Cocaine is attractive to intellectuals and hard-partying weekend warriors alike because of its cognitive-enhancing and dopamine-boosting effects. This is also why this substance has a high potential for addiction and dependence.

Receiving treatment for cocaine addiction is crucial, and the earlier it’s treated the better.  Stonewall Institute Treatment Center’s 10-Week Intensive Outpatient Program is designed to not only treat cocaine addiction itself, but to also provide the tools, structure, guidance, and support that will help maintain long-term sobriety.


What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a stimulant narcotic that’s used almost exclusively as a recreational drug. Cocaine is now only occasionally used in surgery as a topical anesthetic or for controlling bleeding during nasal surgery.

Cocaine is made from the leaves of the cocoa plant. Indigenous cultures in South America chew the leaves for their energizing effects. Bolivian and Peruvian cultures continue to chew cocoa leaves in high volumes. In Bolivia, an estimated one-third of the population chews cocoa leaves. In leaf form, the intoxicating effects are milder while the cognitive-enhancing effects, like improved mental clarity, are longer lasting.

Once cocaine is extracted from the leaves, it becomes significantly more potent. Both forms are addictive, but pure extracted cocaine holds a higher risk for addiction and dependence. The cocaine that hits the streets is rarely pure cocaine by the time it reaches consumers. Cocaine is often mixed with cornstarch, sugar, or quinine to increase profits. Because you never know what you’re going to get when you buy cocaine on the street, it adds another layer of health risk. Sharing straws or dollar bills to snort cocaine can increase the risk of catching hepatitis C. Snorting cocaine can cause abrasions in the nasal cavity that allows bloodborne pathogens to spread.


How Cocaine Works In The Brain

Cocaine affects the brain through a complex interaction of various neurotransmitters and proteins. The two neurotransmitters that cocaine most strongly influences are serotonin and dopamine. Most of the research on cocaine has been focused on its impact on dopamine transmission, as this is the area of the brain that seems to be most strongly affected. Cocaine blocks the function of the dopamine transporter protein. This transporter protein is responsible for removing dopamine from where it can remain active. As a result, the effects of dopamine increase, and the user feels high.  Because of this, many users will ignore the fact that they have a serious drug problem.

At the same time that cocaine makes you feel good by increasing dopamine activity, it improves cognition through a variety of functions, most notably by boosting levels of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is a protein that’s critical for memory and learning. There are plenty of safer ways to increase BDNF, including exercise, yoga, meditation, sleep, and a healthy social life.


Cocaine Addiction: Risks and Side Effects

After only a short period of use, cocaine has a high rate of addiction. The same reason that scientists like Sigmund Freud and William Stewart Halsted loved cocaine is the same reason that makes it so addictive. The mechanism of action that boosts BDNF is also behind its addictive qualities. Without going into too much detail, cocaine enhances your sensitivity to experiencing the reward that comes from getting a hit of dopamine or serotonin.

The positive effects of cocaine include intense happy feelings of euphoria and increased energy. Along with these effects come a long list of dangerous risks and harmful side effects.

Medical professionals consider cocaine to be the perfect “heart attack drug” because it creates the perfect storm for cardiovascular issues. Large doses of cocaine can result in the stiffening of the walls of the arteries, high blood pressure, irregular and rapid heart rate, and myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Other side effects can include paranoia, psychosis, panic attacks, cognitive impairments, mood swings, and dramatic changes in personality.

Long-term risk factors for cocaine abuse include increased body temperature and the development of a manic-like condition similar to amphetamine-induced schizophrenia. These episodes are characterized by severe paranoia, aggression, confusion, and hallucinating the feeling of bugs crawling under the skin, also known as “coke bugs.”

Cocaine addicts can also exhibit rapid weight loss, decreased appetite, weakened immune system, difficulty managing relationships, and increased thoughts of suicide. Because of this life-threatening disease, it’s vital to seek professional substance abuse treatment as soon as possible.


Cocaine Withdrawal

One of the reasons why cocaine is so addictive is because its withdrawal effects come on fast. The crash that cocaine users experience at the end of a night of partying is a harsh reminder of withdrawals that await them if they try to get off the drug.

The immediate effects involved with cocaine withdrawal include pounding headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. The headaches are largely due to the dramatic changes that cocaine has on the cardiovascular system. As the walls of the arteries begin to relax and blood pressure decreases, it can be a challenge for the blood vessels in the head to adjust.

As you commit to staying off the drug, all of the negative side effects of cocaine use can get amplified. Long-term cocaine withdrawal symptoms include paranoia, anxiety, mood swings, depression, irritability, exhaustion, insomnia, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and intense cravings.

The “coke bugs” can return during withdrawals as well. Some users report symptoms similar to schizophrenia and the feeling that their mind is disconnected from themselves. Severe symptoms like these can last from weeks to months depending on the depth of the addiction. The intensity of cocaine withdrawals forces many users to turn to other substances like alcohol and marijuana to help cope with withdrawals and cravings.


Deciding to get clean from cocaine is an encouraging step forward in the path towards healing and recovery. The next step is to complete an alcohol and drug evaluation so it can be determined exactly which course of treatment will best suit your needs.  If you or someone you know needs advice about drug or alcohol addiction, feel free to contact Stonewall Institute Treatment Center at 602-535 6468 or email us at  We’re here to help.

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