The Severity of a Cocaine Addiction

Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director

Cocaine is a potent substance derived from the coca plant, which is native to regions across Central and South America. Although cocaine was only isolated from coca leaves in the 19th century, the leaves have been used for thousands of years, making them one of the oldest known drugs. The use of the pure chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, has resulted in cocaine addictions in the West for over a century.

The problem with cocaine is that it is much stronger than its natural counterpart. In its concentrated and pure form, cocaine is highly addictive and harmful to the body. Many people also buy this drug from street dealers that cut their product with white substances like cornstarch, talcum powder or flour. They sometimes add in synthetic stimulants and opioids, such as amphetamine and fentanyl. Not only does this make them more powerful and addictive, but it puts a person at serious risk of a fatal overdose.

Cocaine is harmful to your brain and your body. 

While cocaine can make you feel euphoric, energized and ready to take on the world, it can also induce negative changes in your brain and body. Cocaine prevents nerve cells from uptaking and recycling dopamine. This causes dopamine levels to increase between two cells, hindering proper cell-to-cell communication. Research shows that cocaine alters other neurotransmitters, too, like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), norepinephrine and glutamate.

Frequent cocaine use can cause the brain to adapt to this condition and become less sensitive to the drug. A person will start to require more and more cocaine to achieve the same pleasure and relief from withdrawal symptoms. According to NYC Health, studies show that “the memory of the euphoria associated with cocaine use, or mere exposure to cues associated with drug use, can trigger tremendous craving and relapse to drug use, even after long periods of abstinence.”

In addition to being addictive, cocaine use can cause psychological changes like irritability, mood disturbances, restlessness, paranoia and auditory hallucinations. Major bodily systems including the cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological and gastrointestinal systems can also be damaged. Some medical complications include:

  • Malnourishment
  • Severe bowel decay
  • Seizures and headaches
  • Strokes and heart attacks
  • Disturbances in heart rhythm
  • Loss of smell and nosebleeds
  • Respiratory infections and failure

Cocaine in its natural form has therapeutic uses. 

Ironically, cocaine’s original form may be more therapeutically valuable in Western medicine than previously thought. The effects of coca are distinct from its concentrate and are not known to cause cocaine addiction. The toxicity and dependence produced from cocaine use are not produced when taken in leaf form.

Archaeological evidence indicates that ancient cultures of Central and South America had cultivated and used coca for about three thousand years for a variety of purposes. According to research, Andean people used coca leaves daily to aid with physical work. Today, indigenous peoples still use the leaves in this way. Chewing the coca leaves relieves nausea, dizziness and severe headaches resulting from altitude sickness. It helps combat fatigue and stimulates cardiac and respiratory function. Coca is also used to treat mouth sores, relieve toothaches and whiten teeth.

Native peoples report that these leaves help them get more nourishment from their food. More research corroborates that coca may be useful in treating gastrointestinal ailments, supplementing weight loss and fitness programs, functioning as a fast-acting antidepressant and serving as a substitute stimulant for coffee.  Despite coca’s potential, researchers explain that more evidence is required to recommend its therapeutic application.

There are effective treatments that can help you recover from cocaine addiction. 

Medications are being tested that act on receptors involved in the emotion and reward centers of the brain. Others are looking to re-balance the disrupted communications between cells caused by cocaine use. A cocaine relapse vaccine is even in the works. At this time, however, there are no medications approved to treat cocaine addiction.

On the other hand, there are many effective behavioral interventions used in residential and outpatient settings. One example is called contingency management (CM), or motivational incentives. It works by rewarding patients who abstain from drug use with prizes that encourage healthy living. CM has been found to be useful in helping a diverse range of patients to achieve initial abstinence and stick to treatment.

Another popular method that has helped patients avoid relapse is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on the developing skills needed to recognize tempting situations and successfully avoid them. Patients typically enroll in a drug residency program, where they will work with clinicians to heal from their addiction. Additionally, community-based recovery groups like Cocaine Anonymous can provide a support system where patients can learn from others, develop meaningful relationships and practice new coping skills.

Cocaine is a highly concentrated and powerful drug that can cause severe physical and neurological complications. Fortunately, cocaine addiction can be treated with behavioral therapies administered in a residential setting. At Casa Palmera, you will be surrounded by a supportive recovery community and build the resilience to bounce back to the best version of yourself. We’ll show you the path. You’ll take the first step. Contact us today for more information about how we can help.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.