What cocaine does to your body and brain

Regular, heavy cocaine use can have extremely negative consequences.

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Regular, heavy cocaine use can have extremely negative consequences.
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Christopher Slesarchik/Shutterstock

Whether it’s snorted, smoked, or injected, cocaine enters the bloodstream and starts affecting the brain in a matter of seconds.

But the high is short-lived, and in most cases lasts anywhere from five to 30 minutes.

Regular, heavy use can have extremely negative consequences, from nosebleeds to permanent lung damage and even death.

Here’s a look at some of the ways cocaine affects the body and brain.


Cocaine starts affecting the brain in seconds — and the high can last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes.

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Reuters/Ben Nelms

If you inject or smoke it, cocaine will travel rapidly into your bloodstream and brain. You’ll also experience a stronger, but more short-lived high of roughly five to 10 minutes. The high from snorting cocaine is short-lived as well, but lasts a bit longer – roughly 15 to 30 minutes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


It blocks the brain’s normal reabsorption of hormones involved in desire and pleasure, which can give you a temporary feeling of intense euphoria.

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Flickr/Adam Swank

Normally, our brain cells cycle and reuse hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which play critical roles in how we experience desire, motivation, pleasure, and reward. After they’re released by brain cells to send out their signal, they’re taken up again by special receptors on that cell.

Cocaine blocks those receptors, effectively shutting off this normal cycling process. The result? A glut of the hormones that key our feelings of desire, behavior reinforcement, and pleasure (AKA a “high”).


Your pupils will dilate.

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Experiences had while on psilocybin may lead to quitting smoking.
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grendel|khan and Lady Byron

Increased levels of both dopamine and serotonin can result in dilated pupils, and cocaine boosts both.


You may feel more energized or alert…

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Wikimedia Commons

Cocaine is thought to boost levels of dopamine – a hormone which plays a key role in reinforcing a behavior – in several brain circuits, including one that’s involved in pleasure and another that’s involved in movement. This is one of the reasons some users may feel more energized, talkative, or alert, studies suggest.


…or you may feel irritable, anxious, or paranoid.

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Wikimedia Commons

Studies suggest a link between cocaine use and psychosis, when someone loses touch with reality. Symptoms of psychosis include agitation, anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.

Still, we can’t say for certain what role the drug plays in these symptoms. While some studies suggest that people who experience psychosis while using cocaine are more likely to experience it later (even when they’re not using), others suggest that using cocaine can worsen underlying mental illnesses like anxiety.


In some users, cravings can be triggered by seeing people or places that remind them of getting high.

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You might trigger a renewed desire to use.
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flickr/gnt

The part of the brain cocaine affects includes key memory centers that help us recall where the source of pleasure came from. When we experience a cocaine high, these brain areas form memories of our pleasurable experience and the places or people that were involved in our experience of getting the drug.

This is why, in some people, going back to the original spot where you used cocaine – or simply seeing pictures of someone else using – might trigger a renewed desire to use.


Your blood vessels will tighten or constrict.

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Morgan/flickr

Cocaine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates our “fight or flight” response. This also tightens up the vessels that ferry blood through our organs and tissues.


Your heart rate will rise.

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Shutterstock

Since your vessels are narrowed, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body.


Your appetite might disappear.

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Frequent users may lose weight or be malnourished.
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Flickr/Carly Sheil

Diminished appetite is one of the most frequently reported effects of using cocaine, which is why frequent users may lose weight or be malnourished. While this has so far been mainly anecdotal in people, it’s also been observed in rat studies.


Chronic use may also reduce your body’s ability to store fat.

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Cocaine seems to cause fundamental changes to our metabolism.
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Sophia Charlotte / Flickr

A 2013 study found that cocaine could mess with your body’s ability to store fat. The researchers observed 65 Britons, roughly half of whom had been addicted to cocaine for more than a decade. (The other half had never used the drug.)

They came away with two surprising findings: 1. The addicts tended to eat more (and even have different protein levels that should have made them put on weight) than those who’d never used, and 2. They also tended to have less body fat than those who never used. Their conclusion? Cocaine seems to cause fundamental changes to our metabolism.


Your arteries will constrict, which can block blood flow to the heart and even cause a heart attack.

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“It’s the perfect heart attack drug,” the study’s lead author, University of Sydney professor of medicine Gemma Figtree, said in a press release.
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Shutterstock

A 2012 study presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association found that even in young people who only reported using cocaine “socially,” the drug could significantly raise the risk of heart attack. “It’s the perfect heart attack drug,” the study’s lead author, University of Sydney professor of medicine Gemma Figtree, said in a press release.


Cocaine is sometimes laced with other drugs that can generate additional side effects.

The powerful and addictive opioid fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is increasingly added to cocaine supplies.

According to the New York City Department of Health, drug dealers are adding fentanyl to cocaine because it acts as an inexpensive filler. Oftentimes, people don’t realize they’re ingesting fentanyl.

“All New Yorkers who use drugs, even if only occasionally, should know their drugs may be mixed with fentanyl,” health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett previously told Business Insider.

Fentanyl, which is one of the most powerful opioids, can slow down a person’s breathing to the point they stop breathing altogether and die because of it, according to AddictionCenter.com.


Some young people have started lacing cocaine with ketamine, which can be a dangerous combination.

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In July, a London teen used the party drug combination and died of an overdose later that night.
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Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

The cocaine-and-ketamine mixture is known by the slang term “Calvin Klein,” with the “C” referring to cocaine and the “K” referring to ketamine, another drug with depressive effects.

In July, a London teen used the party drug combination and died of an overdose later that night. Both drugs can lead to skewed perceptions of time and a racing heart, so when mixed, the effects can be even more severe.

“People act as amateur psychopharmacologists, mixing drugs to get a certain effect – but what they judge poorly are the risks,” Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones, founder of the CNWL Drug Club Clinic, told Vice.


Snorting cocaine can create holes in parts of the nose like the septum between your right and left airways.

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Cocaine constricts blood flow to the septum.
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Flickr / Tony Alter

Cocaine constricts blood flow to the septum, the part of the nose that separates your right and left airways and divides your nostrils. Repeated use can cause holes in the area, which cannot heal without treatment.


Your nasal passages can dry out, causing nosebleeds and nasal collapse.

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A loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, and problems swallowing can occur if a person regularly snorts cocaine.
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Shutterstock/DenRz

Some of cocaine’s effects can fluctuate depending on the method of use. Regularly snorting it, the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, can cause: a loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, problems swallowing, hoarseness, and a runny nose.


One case study found that a man’s cocaine abuse caused his brain to be ‘eaten away.’

According to a case study in BMJ Case Reports, a 45-year-old habitual cocaine user landed in the emergency room after acting confused and being unable to follow basic commands.

When doctors looked at his brain, they found that part of his brain had been “eaten away.” They eventually diagnosed the man with cocaine-induced leukoencephalopathy.

Leukoencephalopathy is a condition where white matter, a substance packed with nerve endings, starts to disappear in the brain or spine. The condition leads to mental deterioration, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Cocaine-induced leukoencephalopathy is extremely rare, but the condition can be fatal.


Smoking cocaine can irritate the lungs and, in some cases, cause permanent lung damage.

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Smoking crack cocaine has been linked with numerous lung issues.
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Flickr/Torbakhopper

Smoking crack cocaine has been linked with numerous lung issues, including injuries to the airways, asthma, a range of symptoms referred to as “crack lung,” interstitial lung disease, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, pulmonary hypertension, emphysema, infections, and tumors.