Facts about Cocaine:

  • Cocaine is made from the leaf of the coca plant.
  • The appearance of cocaine is a white powder.
  • Crack is another form of cocaine, it’s appearance is that of  small, usually off white colored, rocks.
  • Crack is an extremely potent form of cocaine.
  • The name “Crack” was taken from the crackling sound that the drug makes when impure cocaine is heated (Markel, 2011).
  • Cocaine is often inhaled through the nose, while crack cocaine is generally smoked.  Both forms are sometimes injected into the veins by the user. This is sometimes called “mainlining”.  When injected the drug is more rapidly absorbed throughout the body, this substantially increases the risk of overdose.
  • Some street names for cocaine include coke, blow, snow, dust, white, C, flake, and nose candy.
  • The drug cocaine is considered a stimulant. Cocaine is one of the most powerful stimulants found in nature.
  • Stimulants change the way your brain works.

How Cocaine works in the brain:

  • Cocaine changes the way the brain works by changing the way the brain’s nerve cells communicate with each other.
  • Nerve cells are called neurons.
  • Neurons (nerve cells) send messages to each other by releasing special chemicals called neurotransmitters (these transmit messages between the nerve cells).  
  • Neurotransmitters work by attaching to specific sites on the receiving nerve cell, called receptors, the attachment activates the nerve cell to perform it’s special function(s).
  • Dopamine is the name of the neurotransmitter that is heavily affected by cocaine.
In the diagram above, notice the neurotransmitters (little dots in the picture). They are transmitting a message from one nerve cell to the other.  The neurotransmitters leave one nerve cell, and attach to receptors on the receiving nerve cell.  Once attached, the neurotransmitter activates the special function of that particular nerve cell.  The neurotransmitter is than released.  Normally, once the neurotransmitter (in our example, dopamine) is released, it is than pumped back to the nerve cell that released it.  Cocaine blocks this action and causes dopamine to build up in the little gap between the nerve cells. You can see the gap in the picture (where all the little dots or neurotransmitters are hanging out). This gap is called the synapse. When cocaine is used, the result is the dopamine neurotransmitters that should have been returned to the releasing nerve cell, stay in the gap (synapse) and continue to stimulate the receiving nerve cell, after it should have normally stopped.  Because dopamine is one of the brains feel good chemicals, this is what causes cocaine to make the user “high”, or feel really good, a sense of euphoria.
  • Dopamine is released by neurons in the limbic system.  The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls feelings of pleasure.  It is also the part of the brain that plays a part in dealing with emotions, memories, and arousal (stimulation).
  • Normally, once dopamine has attached to a neuron’s receptor, and caused a change in the cell, it’s pumped back to the neuron that released it.  Cocaine blocks this pump, called the dopamine transporter.  Dopamine than builds up in the synapse (gap) between neurons.
  • The result:  dopamine keeps affecting the nerve cell after it should have stopped.  Since dopamine is one of your bodies natural “feel good” chemicals. This explains why someone who uses cocaine feels an extra sense of pleasure for a short time.
  • THE BAD NEWS! Although cocaine can make someone feel pleasure for a little while, it reduces the amount of dopamine available in the brain (it get’s used up too quickly).  It can also reduce the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.  When this happens the brain now needs MORE dopamine just to function normally, and it also requires the user to use MORE of the drug to get the same feelings of pleasure.  Only higher doses, and more frequent use, can bring about the same sense of euphoria.
While using cocaine, dopamine builds up in the synapse (gap), so there is basically an “overload” of this feel good chemical (dopamine).  After using cocaine there is less dopamine available. After chronic cocaine use there are also fewer receptors for dopamine to attach to.  This makes it hard for a person to feel happy normally without the extra stimulation of cocaine, leading to addiction.  The person now “needs” cocaine to feel “normal”.
  • So while cocaine may temporarily cause increased sense of pleasure, later it can take away a person’s ability to feel pleasure from normal things.  For example, a walk in the park, spending time with friends, good food, the aroma of fresh baked cookies, playing with your kids, your favorite song playing on the radio, and so on.  Now the bodies natural reward system has been altered and normal pleasures no longer cause the same feelings of happiness.

Other health problems related to Cocaine use:

  • Cocaine use can lead to death from respiratory problems, stroke, bleeding in your brain, and/or a heart attack.
  • Cocaine causes your bodies blood vessels to narrow, constricting blood flow to the heart.  “If you have ever tried squeezing into a tight pair of pants, than you know how hard it is for the heart to pump blood through narrowed blood vessels” (NIH, 2009).  This forces the heart to work much harder.  When the heart works harder, it beats faster.  It may work so hard that it temporarily loses it’s natural rhythm.  This is a dangerous problem, called fibrillation.  It can stop the flow of blood through the body.
  • Sharing straws to snort cocaine, or needles to inject it, can spread hepatitis C and other blood borne diseases.
  • Cocaine use can cause severe tooth decay because it causes dehydration, which results in less saliva inside your mouth.
  • Chronic cocaine use can also damage your teeth by causing a condition called “bruxism,” which is involuntary teeth grinding (Sfetcu, 2014).
  • Inhaling cocaine through the nose damages the cartilage that separates a person’s nostrils, possibly resulting in a inflammation, scarring, and a hole inside the nose between the two nostrils.

Even more problems related to Cocaine!

  • There are approximately 750,000 babies born addicted to cocaine each year in the United States (NIH, 2016). Babies born to addicted mothers start out in the world as addicts themselves and suffer greatly.
  • Many deaths are related to physical use of the drug.  However, because the drug has strong mind altering effects, it is also responsible for many homicides, suicides and motor vehicle accidents.  It also contributes to theft and other crimes.
  • Cocaine users tend to have higher rates of antisocial personality disorder, depression, anxiety, and multi-substance abuse than the general population. These mental disorders are also more common among their immediate-family members (Platt, 1997).

If you are using cocaine or know someone who is, seek help:

  • Drug addiction hurts everyone, not just the person using the drug, families and children also suffer the consequences. It is especially hard on young children and adolescents.
  • It can happen to anyone in all areas of the world, all ethnic groups, rich or poor, and all ages.
  • Drug dependence is a medical condition that can be treated.  Many people have recovered and returned to living healthy and happy lives.
  • The first step is to be honest with yourself and admit the problem.  People with drug addiction often try to justify the drug use and minimize the problem.  This is called denial.  It’s hard to admit there is a problem, but you will be glad you did when you regain control of your life!
  • The next step is seeking and accepting help.  Most people need help to stop the drug use.  Accepting help is often hard sometimes, but treatment provided by professionals is very helpful.  Remember drug addiction is a disease.  Just like any other disease that you would seek help for.
  • Cocaine is a terribly addictive drug.  So if you have found yourself in it’s grip, don’t be ashamed, not one person in this world is perfect.  We all make mistakes in life.  Sometimes, something that seemed innocent, can turn into a pit you can’t climb out of, alone that is.  Please, reach out for a helping hand.

Resources for Help:



Markel, H. (2011). An anatomy of addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the miracle drug cocaine. Pantheon Books: New York, NY

National Institute of Health [NIH]. (2009). The brains response to cocaine use. NIH Publication No. 093857: Washington D.C.

National Institute of Health [NIH]. (2016). What are the effects of maternal cocaine use?  Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-effects-maternal-cocaine-use

Platt, J. (1997). Cocaine addiction: Theory, research, and treatment. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

Sfetcu, N. (2014). Health & Drugs: Disease, prescription & medication. Lulu Press: Morrisville: NC