Why Is Cocaine So Highly Addictive?

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Scientists and the Drug Enforcement Administration widely recognize cocaine as one of the most addictive and inherently dangerous illicit drugs on the market. The national overdose rate for cocaine has increased by 42% from 2001 to 2014, reaching an all-time high in 2006 with about 7,500 deaths. Cocaine use in the United States has remained stable since 2009, with an estimated 1.5 million users in 2014. The adverse affects from sustained cocaine abuse range from panic attacks to seizures and death. Understanding why cocaine is so highly addictive can help drug abuse experts treat recovering addicts effectively.

Cocaine’s Effects On The Brain

Cocaine is a psycho-stimulant that comes from cocoa leaves, typically combined with hydrochloride to produce the common white powder form. While health care providers can use the extract from cocoa leaves for legitimate medicinal purposes, such as for local anesthesia, cocaine is an illegal substance.

As a street drug, drug dealers often mix cocaine with other substances, such as talcum powder or cornstarch to increase profits. They may also mix cocaine with other drugs and stimulants, such as amphetamine. Users ingest cocaine in four ways:

  • Snorting through the nose
  • Rubbing it on the gums
  • Smoking rock crystals called “crack”
  • Injecting a combination of cocaine and heroin into the veins, called a “Speedball”

Why Cocaine Is So Highly Addictive

Cocaine works by increasing the natural chemical messenger within the brain, known as dopamine. Dopamine exists in the brain circuits that control movement and pleasure. During normal function, the brain releases dopamine in response to rewards, such as the scent of good food. The brain then shuts off the signal between nerve cells to recycle the dopamine back into the cell.

When on cocaine, the brain can’t recycle the dopamine back into the cell that released it. The drug prevents the recycling of dopamine, causing dopamine to constantly fire and build up in the synapses between nerve cells. Dopamine floods the brain, disrupting normal brain activity and communication – causing a “high.” Cocaine produces short-term effects such as extreme happiness, high energy, mental alertness, and hypersensitivity. Cocaine users typically binge on the drug, taking repeated doses in a short period of time to maintain their high.

Why Do Users Become So Dependent On Cocaine?

Why Do Users Become So Dependent On CocaineThe short-term effects of cocaine can help people perform simple everyday tasks more efficiently and quickly, although some people experience the opposite effect. The pleasurable and euphoric effects of cocaine are short-lived, leading to cocaine abusers ingesting larger and larger amounts to chase the feeling that they experienced from the first dose. The repeated ingestion of cocaine alters the brain’s chemistry, causing long-term changes in the brain’s reward system. This is the heart of the reason why cocaine is so addictive.

The more cocaine a person ingests, the more drastically the brain’s reward system alters. Eventually, the user can’t experience pleasure without taking cocaine. The changes in the brain’s system are emotionally devastating, affecting the way the user feels and experiences things for up to a year after coming off the drug. Studies show that cocaine abusers going through recovery are incapable of feeling pleasure, or feel little pleasure, in the first year of sobriety. Unfortunately, this leads to frequent relapse without the proper support group.

Like other drugs, cocaine withdrawal can result in feelings of deep depression, nightmares and insomnia, fatigue, impaired thinking, and increased appetite. These withdrawal symptoms are enough for most users to take cocaine regularly, since their drug-induced state becomes their new “normal.” Treating cocaine addiction is difficult and requires a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapies, motivational incentive management, and therapeutic communities.

Health Effects Of Using Cocaine

The long-term health affects of cocaine depend on how the user ingests the drug. Snorting cocaine can lead to a lost sense of smell, nosebleeds, and problems swallowing. Consuming the drug orally can result in severe bowel decay due to extended reduced blood flow. Injecting cocaine carries a high risk of contracting Hepatitis-C and HIV. Cocaine use not only results in significant changes within the brain, but it also affects other parts of the body and mind. Other health affects connected to cocaine include:

  • Paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Raised body temperature
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Muscle tremors and twitches

The risk of overdose is high with cocaine, as users consume more and more of it to chase the high. Detecting and intervening in a cocaine addiction early, stemming its effects on the brain, is crucial for the recovery rate of cocaine addicts. Recovering from a cocaine addiction is possible, but it requires the expert help and care of a professional treatment facility.


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Serenity at Summit employs a diverse staff of writers that share a common passion for helping those who are struggling with substance abuse find the care they need. With years of experience in the substance abuse treatment industry and decades of experience in writing and research, our team of writers constantly strive to present accurate and helpful information that is easily digestible and encourages people to seek help.