What is cocaine?

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that comes in the form of a white powder or a “rock.” Street names for powdered cocaine include snow, nose candy, coke, Big C, flake, and blow. People snort cocaine through their nose or inject it with a needle into their muscles or veins. Powdered cocaine can also be smoked via a process called “freebasing.”

Drug dealers mix cocaine with other substances so they can have more of the drug to sell. These “fillers” make the drug even more dangerous because the user does not know how much cocaine he or she is taking. The fillers also can add harmful side effects to an already unsafe drug.

What is crack?

Crack is cocaine that has been processed so that it can be smoked. It also goes by the street name “rock.” Crack looks like small pieces or shavings of soap, but has a hard, sharp feel. Crack is usually smoked by heating it in a glass pipe, but it can also be mixed into a marijuana “joint” or a tobacco cigarette.

When a person smokes crack (or powder via freebase) cocaine, the drug reaches the brain more rapidly and in higher peak doses than when it is snorted in powder form. The user feels an intense “rush” followed by a “crash” that can produce a strong craving for more of the drug.

What's so bad about cocaine and crack?

Cocaine and crack are dangerous for many reasons. Cocaine and crack use can lead to:

  • Sudden cardiac death
  • Loss of ability to perform sexually
  • Addiction, even after one try
  • Brain seizures
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Depression
  • Stroke
  • Violent actions

In a person who is addicted, his or her cocaine use becomes an obsession and strong urge that can cause:

  • Loss of control over his or her life
  • A willingness to do anything to get more cocaine
  • Spending a tremendous amount of money on his or her habit
  • A loss of interest in friends, family, and social activities
  • A need to take the drug just to feel “normal”

Why do people become addicted to cocaine?

Cocaine causes an intense flood of chemicals in the brain’s “pleasure” or “reward” pathway—essentially short-circuiting what would normally only be stimulated, or roused, by pleasurable life events. Repeated overloading of this brain circuit by cocaine causes changes in the brain in which nothing seems pleasurable without the drug.

The chemicals released in the brain by cocaine also play a role in maintaining normal feelings of happiness. Reduced levels of these chemicals (as during a cocaine “crash”) can cause intense feelings of depression. The addict will try to avoid these negative feelings by using more of the drug as soon as these symptoms arise.

These actions can ultimately lead to changes in other parts of the brain that result in the drug use becoming an obsession and compulsion—like an itch that must be scratched no matter what the outcome. This is why addicts will continue to use the drug despite all of the negative consequences. The obsession with the drug is also referred to as craving.

In the case of cocaine, addicts also report an intense motivation to try to obtain the “high” that they experienced the first time they ever used, but the intensity of that first experience is impossible to ever achieve through repeated use.

What are the signs that someone is addicted to cocaine?

  • Periods of severe depression
  • Weight loss
  • Not taking care of personal hygiene or appearance
  • Constant runny nose
  • Frequent upper respiratory infections
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Loss of interest in friends, family, and social activities
  • Loss of interest in food, sex, or other pleasures
  • Hearing voices that aren’t there, or feeling paranoid
  • Becoming more angry, impatient, or nervous
  • Hallucinations
  • Unable to explain having large sums of money
  • Offering sex for money to get drugs

How can I help someone who is addicted to cocaine?

Most drug users deny that they have a problem, and push family and friends away. You may feel helpless, frustrated, and unable to cope. You can get help by contacting a local drug abuse treatment center. You should also do the following:

  • Establish appropriate limits and rules with your loved one who may be suffering from addiction.
  • Don't change your actions to suit the needs of the user.
  • Don't cover up for the user when he or she fails to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home.
  • Don't make excuses for the addict's drug use.
  • Don't lend money for drugs.
  • Encourage the user to seek help.
  • Get help from Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.

How is cocaine and crack addiction treated?

Recovery often begins with “detox,” the body's physical withdrawal from cocaine. Physical symptoms of withdrawal can begin within a few hours and last up to seven days. The inability to enjoy normal pleasure may last longer.

Withdrawal symptoms include:

After the patient has been medically stabilized from the effects of withdrawal from cocaine, and other drugs or alcohol, he or she enters the next phase of addiction treatment. This involves group participation, counseling, and, often, psychiatric evaluation and treatment. The goal of counseling is to help the addict understand the effects of cocaine use, face the issues that lead to drug use, and learn ways to stay away from cocaine.

Group participation usually involves the “12-step” process that is common to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. If the addict also suffers from a psychiatric issue, such as depression or bipolar disorder, such issues also need to be treated or else they will probably help cause the person to go back to using drugs.

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