Cocaine and Crack Abuse

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is cocaine? What is crack?

Cocaine, also called coke, nose candy, snow, blow or toot, is a drug of abuse that is derived from the coca plant. When mixed and heated with ether (cooked), a highly flammable substance (freebase), the gas that is the result of that process is released in its pure form, which can be inhaled. Crack cocaine, also called rock or rock cocaine, describes cocaine in solid form. It is manufactured by mixing powder cocaine with baking soda and water, which generates a highly concentrated and therefore highly addictive form of the substance. Crack cocaine is taken in by putting the cocaine rocks into a crack pipe and smoking them.

How is cocaine abused?

Cocaine is one of a number of street drugs that can be abused in a number of different ways, including injecting, smoking, inhaling associated vapors or taken in through the nose by snorting.

What are cocaine's effects on the body and the mind?

The time it takes for an individual to feel the effects of cocaine and the amount of time that cocaine stays in the system, is a function of the way the drug is taken. For example, when cocaine is in solid form, the person feels the effects of smoking the drug within seconds, while the powder form of cocaine that is snorted (taken intranasally) takes up to 10 minutes to take effect. Regardless of how this drug is taken, it tends to cause intense euphoria and highly intensifies every pleasure. Then the person tends to become hyperactive and excessively alert. Once the high wears off (in less than 20 minutes for crack), the person often becomes irritable, agitated, and uncomfortable.

The physiological (biological) effects of cocaine on the brain involve the drug's effects on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Specifically, cocaine tends to dramatically increase the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Because these chemicals are involved in pleasure and well-being, alertness, increase in blood pressure and pulse, as well as happiness, the effects of cocaine on the body and mind are consistent with these effects. Other physical signs and symptoms of cocaine use include decreased appetite, sleep, and male infertility.

When a person withdraws from the effects of cocaine, the decrease in neurotransmitters can result in a sudden drop in blood pressure or pulse, severe depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts and attempts. For those who overdose on cocaine, the effect of excess dopamine can cause anger, aggressiveness, violence, psychosis, and sometimes homicidal thoughts and behavior. Physical symptoms of cocaine overdose can include seizures, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), and heart attack. Cocaine abuse also tends to result in decreased inhibitions that can lead to risky sexual and other high-risk behaviors.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/25/2016

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