Reduce risk and stay safe

Cocaine is a highly addictive drug that comes with a number of side effects. We take a look at what that means for your health.

Cocaine, a white crystalline powder, is a central nervous stimulant that can be swallowed, injected, inhaled or, most commonly, snorted.

The initial effect is almost immediate, producing feelings of euphoria while also making the person feel extra energetic, talkative, and mentally alert.

This happens because cocaine interferes with the way the brain processes dopamine, the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for regulating pleasure. It essentially stops dopamine being removed which means there’s a temporary increase of dopamine, and the result is that feeling of euphoria. Ultimately though, it leads to a depletion of dopamine which results in a crash after use.

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What are the immediate physical effects of taking cocaine?

As well as the feelings of euphoria, immediate physical effects can also include:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Temporary feelings of self-confidence and energy
  • Numbness of the throat/tongue/mouth (depending on how it was ingested)
  • Overheating
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Alertness
  • Low appetite
  • Nausea
  • Headaches

The effects can last up to 30 minutes, and when the immediate effects wear off, people often report experiencing a crash. This can include:

  • Anxiety and tension
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Disturbed sleep patterns, exhaustion

Most people report feeling strong cravings to use again and binge. This increases the risk of overdose, heart attack, stroke, organ failure, and seizures through overheating. Make sure you know how to recognise the signs of an overdose, and always call 111 if someone:

  • is unconscious;
  • stops breathing;
  • has a seizure;
  • is extremely agitated for longer than 15 minutes;
  • has chest pain or breathing difficulties for longer than 5 minutes.

Mixing drugs is always a bad idea, and greatly increases the risks. This is especially true for cocaine and alcohol which, as a sedative, can mask the effects of cocaine and lead to re-dosing, putting greater stress on the body. Mixing cocaine with other stimulants can lead to overdose or death through heart attacks, overheating, seizures, or even serotonin syndrome. 

What are long-term health effects of taking cocaine?

Repeated cocaine use can put a lot of stress on your body. Because it effects the pleasure and reward pathways of the brain, it can make it harder to get a sense of enjoyment and pleasure from activities you used to enjoy without cocaine use. Some long term impacts could include:

  • Permanent damage to the blood vessels of the heart and brain
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Abdominal pain and nausea
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia and exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Light and sound sensitivity
  • Weight loss and eating disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Cerebral atrophy and impaired thinking
  • Aggressive or violent behaviour

Different ways of consuming cocaine can also lead to different long-term problems – destruction of nose tissue if snorted, infection risk if injected, or respiratory failure if smoked.

Tolerance to cocaine develops quickly, meaning more cocaine is needed to have the same effect while the cravings become more intense. All of this means it’s easy for moderate, social use to become destructive, constant use.

If you have any concerns about your own use of cocaine, or that of a friend, get in touch with the Alcohol Drug Helpline. Call 0800 787 797, or text 8681, to speak with a trained counsellor – they’ll be able to provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential. You can also chat with the team through their website.