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07-08 When life slips through the crack(s): The effects of cocaine on the body

When life slips through the crack(s): The effects of cocaine on the body

Cocaine, often referred to as “coke,” is a highly addictive stimulant that has the potential to cause both physical and psychological damage to users and is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule II controlled substance. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine overdose was the cause of 4,600 deaths in the United States in 2011 alone. NIDA’s Monitoring the Future Study in 2014 reported that 4.6 percent of high school seniors have used powder cocaine in their lifetimes and 1.8 percent have smoked crack cocaine. While the survey’s numbers hardly indicate an epidemic, they still show a need to educate teens on the dangers of cocaine abuse.

The difference between powder and crack cocaine is that crack is processed into rock crystal form so it can be smoked. The nickname “crack” originated from the cracking sound produced when the rock is heated. Though it is commonly believed to be cheaper than powder cocaine since it is cut with ammonia or baking soda throughout the crystallization process, research by the National Institutes of Health has determined that crack is not less expensive per unit than its powder alternative. In fact, powder cocaine is also typically cut with other substances, such as cornstarch or sugar.

What does cocaine do?

Cocaine, in any form, distorts the way nerve cells communicate within the brain. Nerve cells release neurotransmitters as a way to communicate with each other, which attach to molecules called receptors. The neurotransmitter dopamine is related to pleasure and emotional responses, and is released then recycled back into the cell from which it came to turn off the signal. Cocaine disrupts this cycle, making dopamine build up in an individual’s brain, leading to feelings of intense pleasure and heightened energy.

There are many physical reactions cocaine has on the body, in addition to those which occur in the brain. These include constricted blood vessels, increased body temperature, hypertension, nausea, restlessness, decreased appetite and insomnia. In addition, cocaine, as with most stimulant drugs, has been known to cause panic attacks and paranoid psychosis in some users. Long after the immediate euphoric effects of the drug have worn off, many individuals feel sad and may experience low energy levels for days after use. Long-term effects of snorting powder cocaine include loss of smell and chronic nosebleeds.

Over time, with consistent cocaine abuse, an individual can lose the ability to feel any pleasure at all due to the disruption of the brain’s natural dopamine cycle. This tolerance often leads to addiction, as the individual then craves more cocaine to feel even mild forms of pleasure. Withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, feelings of sadness and exhaustion, bad dreams and paranoia, accompanied by intense cravings for cocaine. Cocaine overdose is most common when the drug is taken in large amounts or when mixed with other drugs or alcohol and the specific cause of death is typically cardiac arrest. According to NIDA, men are three times more likely than women to die from cocaine overdose.

There is a variety of ways in which an individual can develop a cocaine addiction but genetics typically plays a large role. Rainer Spanagel, lead researcher of a recent study at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, notes that genetics plays an even larger role in cocaine addiction than in alcohol addiction. The study reviewed 670 cocaine addicts and found that they were 25 percent more likely to carry a specific genetic variant than non-addicts. Spanagel explains, “If you are a carrier of this gene variant, the likelihood of getting addicted to cocaine is higher. You can certainly use this as a vulnerability marker for cocaine addiction.”

Though NIDA found that less than 5 percent of teens experiment with cocaine, research on its effects and the genetic components of cocaine addiction indicate a need for increased awareness. If your teen is struggling with cocaine addiction, help is available. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescents and teens struggling with substance abuse, mental health issues and dual diagnosis. Call 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.

Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer

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