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The short and long-term effects of cocaine on the body

Find out about the short and long-term effects that cocaine can have on your physical and mental health. If you are struggling with cocaine abuse or addiction, you can also discover valuable information on recovery, and find out about the support and treatment that is available here at Priory. 

Short-term effects of cocaine

The direct effects that can occur when using cocaine include the following:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure

As the constricted blood vessels disrupt the flow of blood in the body, this can lead to stomach pain, a reduced appetite, nausea, vomiting and constipation. The increased heart rate and blood pressure, along with the restricted blood flow through the arteries, can also see the risk of a heart attack rise.

The direct use of cocaine can also cause behavioural changes as it increases the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre. It can lead to a person becoming more erratic and violent, and feeling more confident and invincible, which can increase the likelihood of them becoming involved in reckless behaviours where they have the potential to be injured.

Long-term effects of cocaine

Regular and long-term use of cocaine can cause a person to build up a tolerance to the drug, where more of it is needed in order for them to feel the same effects. When upping the dose or frequency of use, this can increase the effects that cocaine then has on their mental and physical health.

The nose and mouth

Snorting cocaine damages the mucous membranes within the nose, creating a dry environment with less blood flow. This can seriously damage the soft tissue and cartilage, and heavy use can cause a person to perforate their septum, leading to the collapse of the nasal structure. This can also happen to the upper plate of the mouth.

Cocaine use can also lead to an individual’s sense of smell being lost, as well as nosebleeds, problems swallowing and overall irritation of the nasal septum.

The heart

Chronic cocaine use can increase the risk of blood clots, which in turn can lead to heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms, strokes and deep vein thrombosis. It can also cause inflammation and death of the heart muscle, deterioration of the heart’s ability to contract as well as aortic ruptures, angina and permanently increased blood pressure.  

Breathing and respiration

Smoking cocaine can cause serious respiratory problems as it stops oxygen from being able to enter the blood stream, and destroys capillaries that carry oxygen to the rest of the body. It can lead to a higher risk of problems such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress and asthma.

The brain

As cocaine causes blood vessels to constrict, consistent use can reduce the amount of oxygen the brain receives, which can lead to brain damage and increase the possibility of aneurysms. Further risks include strokes, seizures, cerebral atrophy (brain shrinking) and cerebral vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels in the brain and/or spinal column).

Long-term use can also cause a person’s cognitive functions to become impaired, affecting areas such as their attention span, impulse inhibition, decision making and motor skills. Cocaine can also age the brain, leading to long-term memory problems, while also impacting on a person’s mental health.

The digestive system

Cocaine can reduce the blood flow to the stomach and intestines, leading to tears and ulcers. It can also increase the risk of ischemic colitis, where the large intestine becomes injured and inflamed.

Your kidneys and liver

Chronic or acute cocaine use causes muscles fibres to die, and the contents to enter the blood stream. This can lead to rhabdomyolysis (muscle damage) and have serious complications for the kidney. The toxicity of cocaine as it metabolises can also significantly injure the liver.

Infectious diseases

When injected, cocaine can also lead to gangrene, ulcers, vein collapse and infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.

The effects of cocaine abuse and addiction on quality of life

Cocaine misuse and addiction can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life as well as their physical and mental health, and can result in the following:

  • Family problems
  • Academic failure
  • Financial problems
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Substandard occupational performance
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Arrest and imprisonment
  • Suicidal thoughts

Recovery from cocaine addiction

If you are looking to receive support for cocaine abuse or addiction, Priory has addiction treatment centres across the UK that can provide you with access to the right help and support. Within these centres, we offer free initial assessments, where you can come and speak to our team to discover more about our services and find out how we can help you on your journey to recovery.

Our detoxification programmes can help you to rid your body of substances, and our residential stays give you the opportunity to address your addiction and learn strategies for life going forward.

Priory also has secondary addiction services, day care and outpatient programmes, which can act as a valuable ‘step down’ after a residential stay, where you are able to begin picking back up personal and professional responsibilities while still being supported by your Priory team.

Reviewed by Dr Patrick Mbaya (MB ChB, MSc, MD, FRCPsych, Cert. Psychopharmacology), Lead Consultant for Addictions at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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