How Cocaine Addiction Works

Is Cocaine Physically Addictive?

Acting primarily on the neurotransmitter dopamine, cocaine is a highly physically addictive drug. While not everyone who tries cocaine becomes addicted, even intermittent use can rapidly lead to physical dependency.

What Causes Cocaine Addiction?

Cocaine addiction develops extremely rapidly due to the drug’s strong effects on brain chemistry. As soon as cocaine is used, it moves quickly into the bloodstream, stimulating a flood of dopamine within the brain. With repeated use of—and repeated surges in dopamine—tolerance develops to cocaine and the brain cuts back on dopamine production. Without cocaine, dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure and calm—levels dip lower, leaving the cocaine user experiencing an emotional and physical crash. Tolerance to cocaine also builds quickly, requiring larger amounts or more frequent use of cocaine in order to achieve the same high.

What Are the Signs of Cocaine Addiction?

Physical signs of cocaine addiction include chronic red eyes, dilated pupils, nasal congestion, and frequent and unexpected nosebleeds. Quickening heartbeat (tachycardia) or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), elevated blood pressure and constriction of blood vessels also tend to occur during cocaine withdrawal—all resulting in an increased body temperature obviated by face flushing and excessive sweating. While under the influence of cocaine, cocaine dependent individuals may also experience nausea or vomiting. Psychological withdrawal symptoms include depression, intense cravings, rapid speech, hyperalertness and erratic behavior. Cocaine users often cycle through feelings and moods of excitement, joviality, paranoia, depression, anger, and exhaustion.

Behavioral signs of cocaine addiction include frequent trips to the bathroom, white powder residue under the nose, at the corners of the mouth, on clothing or present on tabletops and hand mirrors. Cocaine paraphernalia can include the presence of razors, plastic baggies, small cocaine spoons, makeup compacts without makeup in them, plastic film canisters, or small glass vials. Though not commonly seen anymore, longer fifth fingernails were also often used for snorting cocaine, largely in the 1980s.

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