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Effects of Cocaine Use: Short-Term, Long-Term, & Side Effects

Cocaine is a Schedule II illegal stimulant drug that is highly addictive. It is often used recreationally, and there is a range of dangers associated with the use of cocaine. This page will talk about:

  • What cocaine is and how it is used.
  • Cocaine’s effects on the brain and why it is so addictive.
  • Short- and long-term effects of cocaine use.
  • How the way it is ingested can impact the side effects of cocaine use.
  • Cocaine overdose.
  • Treatment options for cocaine addiction.

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that is derived from the South American coca plant.1 It is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, since it does have some accepted medical use, but it also carries a high risk for abuse.2 Cocaine is used medically as a local anesthetic for some surgeries on the eyes, ears, and throat, but it is more often taken as a recreational drug.1,2

Illicit cocaine appears as a white, crystalline powder.1 It may be mixed with flour, baking soda, cornstarch, and other substances to increase profits and dilute the potency. Other substances often mixed with cocaine include amphetamines or procaine to make it feel more potent and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.1,2 Powder cocaine can be snorted or combined with water and injected intravenously.1,2 Cocaine can also be further processed to create a smokeable form known as crack cocaine, which looks like small rocks or crystals.1,2

How Does Cocaine Produce Its Addictive Effects?

Cocaine is highly addictive because of how it works in the brain.3 When a person uses cocaine, it causes an increase in dopamine in the brain by attaching to dopamine transporters and increasing the amount of dopamine in nerve cells (neurons), modifying the way nerve cells communicate with each other.1,2 Cocaine can have long-lasting or irreversible effects on the brain.4

Dopamine has an impact on your movements, thoughts, pleasure center, and motivation.3,4 An excess of dopamine makes people feel good and want to keep using cocaine, while also diminishing the effects of dopamine felt with everyday pleasurable activities such as exercise, sexual intercourse, and eating.1,3

Your brain becomes desensitized to cocaine when you use it frequently, so larger amounts taken more often are needed to feel the same effects.1,3 This concept is known as tolerance. Tolerance develops as a result of the body adapting to repeated substance use over time, to the point where a person needs increasing doses to feel the same desirable effects. Tolerance builds as the body becomes so used to a substance that it no longer responds to it the way it initially did, and, as a result, the desired effects become blunted. An increase in tolerance often leads to escalating patterns of use—drinking more or using more of a drug, which can drive compulsive drug use and is a risk factor for addiction.

Cocaine use is also strongly linked with memories, leading to emotional responses and cravings when a person is exposed to a triggering event, which makes it more difficult to stop using.4

Short-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

When cocaine is first used, it produces short-term effects that people may view as desirable. Cocaine side effects are often what make people want to continue using the drug and can include:

  • Feelings of euphoria1,2
  • Increased energy1,2
  • Increased alertness1,2
  • Reduced need to sleep or eat2,3
  • Talkativeness2,3

Cocaine can also cause short-term physiological and mental changes, including:

  • Abdominal pain2
  • Anxiety1,3
  • Dizziness2,3
  • Increased blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate2,3
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds, sights, and touch1,2
  • Irritability1,2
  • Nausea1,2
  • Paranoia1,2
  • Restlessness1,2
  • Tremors2,3
  • Volatile or violent behavior1,2

Even if cocaine is only used once, it can cause significant and potentially fatal medical complications.2 These can include:2

  • Coma
  • Heart attack
  • Irregular heartbeat or changes to the heart rhythm
  • Seizure
  • Stroke

How Does the Method of Ingestion Influence Cocaine’s Short-Term Effects?

Short-term side effects of cocaine use can be heavily influenced by how it is ingested. Snorting, smoking, or injecting cocaine intravenously can impact how quickly the effects are felt, how long the effects last, and the risk of developing cocaine addiction. The faster the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream, the stronger the effects are, so injecting cocaine produces the most intense effects, followed by smoking, and then snorting.1,2

However, a more intense high also carries a greater risk for addiction.3,5

When cocaine is combined with other substances—known as polysubstance use—this can also influence the short-term effects of cocaine. Combining cocaine with other stimulants can significantly magnify the effects of both drugs and greatly increase your risk of overdose, organ damage, or death.6

Mixing cocaine with alcohol is especially dangerous because they break down to create a substance that raises the risk of stroke and heart attack.2,3 Cocaine taken with depressants can also hide the effects of one or both substances, making you think that the substances aren’t working and increasing the risk of overdose or organ damage.2,6

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

Long-term side effects of cocaine can be wide-ranging and harmful, impacting physical and mental health in a variety of ways. Chronic cocaine use can lead to the development of dependence.2 Dependence is a physiological adaptation of the body to a substance, wherein the body becomes so used to the drug being present in the system that when an individual cuts back on their use or quits, withdrawal symptoms emerge.

With significant levels of physiological dependence, a person may continue to compulsively drink or use drugs to avoid unwanted withdrawal symptoms. When cocaine use is suddenly stopped or greatly reduced, withdrawal symptoms can include:7

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty feeling pleasure
  • Fatigue
  • Increased appetite
  • Irritability
  • Moving or thinking more slowly than usual
  • Paranoia
  • Sleep issues, including excessive sleeping or insomnia
  • Strong cravings for cocaine, which can lead to an increased risk of relapse

Overdose risk is high after a period of abstinence when tolerance is reduced.3 Long-term cocaine use can lead to neurological problems, including the potential development of Parkinson’s disease and impairment of cognitive functioning, such as memory loss, poor decision making, lack of focus, poor impulse control, and poor motor functioning.1,2 Cocaine use can also make you more likely to have strokes, seizures, brain aneurysms, or bleeding in the brain.2,3

Over time, chronic cocaine use can also lead to paranoia, hallucinations, depression, or psychosis.1,3 Other physical issues can include cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, significant weight loss, and dental problems.2,3

Different negative effects of cocaine use can occur depending on the method of use:1,2,3

  • Snorting cocaine can lead to losing your sense of smell, frequent nosebleeds or runny nose, difficulty swallowing, hoarse voice, sinus inflammation, and irritation or permanent damage of the nasal septum.
  • Smoking cocaine can lead to chronic cough, asthma, trouble breathing, increased risk of lung infections like pneumonia or bronchitis, and permanent damage to the lungs.
  • Injecting cocaine can lead to scarring or collapsed veins, infections in the skin or soft tissue, development of blood clots in veins, increased risk of infections in the bloodstream traveling to organs, and a greater risk of contracting bloodborne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Cocaine Overdose Symptoms

A cocaine overdose can occur when you use enough of the drug that it causes side effects which are especially severe, life-threatening, or even fatal.1 Overdose can be intentional or unintentional. An intentional overdose occurs when someone takes enough to cause an overdose on purpose, such as during a suicide attempt.8 An unintentional overdose occurs when too much was taken by mistake or unknowingly—like when the drug contains an additional, unknown substance.9

It is possible to overdose on cocaine at any time, even if it is only used once.1,2 After a period of abstinence, someone who experiences a cocaine relapse is at the highest risk for overdose due to reduced tolerance.3 Cocaine overdose is hazardous, since it can cause a range of issues, including dangerously high blood pressure and body temperature, significant agitation and anxiety, hallucinations, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, seizures, strokes, and death.1,3

Cocaine Addiction Treatment

If you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine misuse, addiction treatment is available. Addiction is viewed as a chronic medical condition and is treated through a combination of behavioral therapy—to address any physical and/or mental health concerns or disorders you may have—and treatment services, which address other ways that cocaine addiction has impacted your life.2,9

Whenever possible, you should consult with a doctor or other treatment professional to help you make any treatment decisions in order to ensure that they will be the best choices for you. You can locate a nearby rehab center here.

Treatment should ideally be tailored to meet your needs and may include multiple settings, including:

  • Detox: While cocaine withdrawal is typically not life-threatening, the severity of your symptoms may influence the level of care that is the best fit for you.3,7 There are no medications specifically designed to treat cocaine withdrawal, but medications may be provided to treat individual symptoms that are problematic, such as depression and insomnia.1,7 Since detox alone is not comprehensive addiction treatment, it should be followed up by additional types of care for the best results.9
  • Inpatient treatment: This is a type of care where you stay at a facility throughout treatment and receive support and monitoring around-the-clock.3,9 Stays typically last around 4 weeks and involve rigorous levels of group and individual therapy.9
  • Outpatient treatment: This type of care involves living at home while you attend scheduled group and individual counseling sessions at the facility, making this a good option for people with supportive social groups or work responsibilities.9,10 The intensity of services can vary depending on your needs.9,10
  • Therapy: This allows you to learn new patterns of thought and behavior to increase motivation toward staying sober, prevent relapse, improve your ability to communicate with others, effectively manage stressors, cope with triggers, and develop a social group that is supportive of sobriety.5,9 Common behavioral therapy techniques used to treat cocaine addiction include:
  • Aftercare: This is additional support offered after treatment ends and can include alumni groups, mentoring, recovery housing, self-help meetings, and counseling.2,10

Find Cocaine Treatment Programs

Receiving treatment for a cocaine use disorder can help you regain control over your life. Quitting cocaine use can allow you to avoid negative and harmful side effects and prevent the possibility of overdose. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab facilities across the country. We can help. Please call us today free at . You can also instantly check the coverage offered by your health insurance provider or contact free drug and alcohol hotline numbers.

Cocaine Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

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