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The Effects of a Cocaine Overdose

by Landmark Recovery

December 20, 2018

According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were over 14,500 drug overdose deaths that involved cocaine in 2017. Since 2010, there has been a 3.5-fold increase in the total number of deaths. Similarly, there were almost 4,200 drug deaths that involved cocaine in combination with opioid synthetics in 2016. There was a 23-fold increase in the number of these deaths from 2012 to 2016, this is mostly due to the emergence of fentanyl.

It is clear that over the past decade, cocaine has seen a resurgence and is contributing to more and more deaths, being present in roughly 20 percent of all drugs deaths in the country. A news release from 2017 from NIDA says that opioids are driving the increase of cocaine overdoses in the country. NIDA cited the fact that there was a decline in overdoses from 2006 to 2010 but they have since increased, with many involving heroin and synthetic opioids.

Cocaine is a strong, illegal stimulant drug that is powerfully addictive. It first became a popular drug in the 1970s during the rise of the South American drug cartels. Since then, it has become a party drug that is normally used along with other substances such as alcohol, which can lead to an increased risk of overdose. This, along with the rise of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have led to more and more drug overdoses that involve cocaine.

Cocaine is a popular drug in the states and learning more about it and the effects it can have on the body and mind are important when learning about drug addiction.


A chart showing the national overdose deaths involving Cocaine.



Cocaine Overdose and Effects on the Body

Cocaine can be snorted or injected into the veins after dissolving into water. Meanwhile crack cocaine is smoked. Cocaine is also sometimes used in combination with an opiate like heroin or other drugs. Cocaine users will generally binge their drug until they run out of the drug or stop due to exhaustion.

The intensity of the effects depend on the dosage and the method of use and how quickly the drug reaches the brain. Smoking and intravenous injection reaches the brain in seconds, meanwhile snorting the drug is less intense and doesn’t as happen as quickly due because it takes longer to reach the brain.

Cocaine increases the levels of dopamine, the chemical that controls pleasure in the body. Normally dopamine returns to the cell that released it but when cocaine is involved it prevents the dopamine from returning. This causes large amounts of buildup of dopamine in the brain.

Due to the dopamine buildup, the user experiences extreme euphoria, excitement and energy.

Also, the increased dopamine in the brain can influence a person’s decision to use again and also affects their tolerance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“The flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit strongly reinforces drug-taking behaviors, because the reward circuit eventually adapts to eh excess of dopamine caused by cocaine, and becomes less sensitive to it. As a result, people take stronger and more frequent doses in an attempt to feel the same high, and to obtain relief from withdrawal.”

When cocaine reaches the brain, the drug also has a number of effects on the body. Short term health effects that occur during cocaine use consist of, hypersensitivity, paranoia, and irritability.


Other health effects include:

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Tremors and muscle twitches

While short-term effects of the drug can be harmful, chronic use may be detrimental to some. Long term use of cocaine can lead to loss of smell, nosebleeds, respiratory distress, reduced blood flow. Chronic snorting cocaine can also lead to the erosion of the nasal cavity while injecting can increase risk of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Long-term cocaine use can also lead to movement disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.



Despite the health risks that come from short-term and long-term use of the drug, cocaine overdoses are still something to be aware of as they can be deadly. As mentioned before, increased use of the drug can lead to a build-up of tolerance, causing users to intake more of the drug to chase a previous high. The increased use and tolerance of cocaine is one thing that leads to overdoses, however overdoses can also occur in a first time user.

Similarly, users will often use cocaine at the same time as drinking alcohol which can but them at greater risk of overdose. Others may mix cocaine with other drugs like heroin which can be a deadly combination.


Cocaine overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce life-threatening symptoms that can lead to death. Many frequent symptoms that are associated with cocaine overdose include:

  • Heart attacks
  • Seizures
  • Strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations


There is currently no medication that can cure a cocaine overdose entirely but there is treatment for symptoms present that can be successful. Because cocaine overdoses can often lead to heart attacks, strokes, or seizures first responders are trained to treat these conditions by restoring blood flow, restoring oxygen-rich blood to the brain and stopping seizures.

However, naloxone is one type of medication-assisted treatment that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, including to people who have used cocaine.



As is the case with many other drugs, addiction is a possibility when it comes to cocaine. As mentioned before, the drug affects the reward circuit in the brain which can, on its own, lead to addiction. But as users build up a tolerance to it, they begin to use more. More cocaine is used in higher doses and more frequently, as users try to chase a high that they felt initially and as they experience the effects of withdrawal.


Some of the withdrawal symptoms associated with cocaine include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Slow thinking
  • Insomnia

There are treatment options available for individuals who are dealing with a cocaine addiction. Many inpatient treatment centers, after detoxification, will have patients go through different forms of individual and group therapy.

One popular type of therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). During CBT, patients speak with a counselor to try to identify the triggers that lead to cravings in an effort to reduce chances of relapse.


Other forms of therapy and treatment can include:

  • Family therapy
  • 12-step programs
  • Sober living homes

There is currently no government-approved medicines that are used to treat cocaine addiction.


Laced Cocaine

Because cocaine is a street drug, some dealers often mix their product with other ingredients like cornstarch and flour to increase profits. As of recently, however, some are mixing it with fentanyl, a highly-addictive synthetic opioid. Mixing the drug with fentanyl creates a stronger high and increases the addictiveness of the drug but carries a greater risk of overdose.

The introducing of this deadly cocktail over the past decade has lead to a major increase in drug-related deaths in the country.


Cocaine and Other Drugs

It has been mentioned already that while cocaine is a deadly drugs that can lead to overdoses in chronic or even first-time users, cocaine along with the use of other substances can be even more detrimental. One research study says that cocaine and other drugs, especially alcohol, can lead to harmful effects.

“When cocaine is combined with other illicit prescription drugs, the mortality rates are also high. More important, cocaine and alcohol have been associated with a 16-fold increase in the risk of suicide than either agent alone.”

More recently, some drugs are being laced with fentanyl by illicit drug manufacturers and traffickers in order to increase the addictiveness and high of their respective drug. While it can lead to customers coming back, it has also lead to a large increase in accidental overdoses as users don’t know what drug they are using.

One highly-publicized case of fentanyl being used came in September when 26-year-old Mac Miller died from an overdose. In November, the Los Angeles Coroner’s office announced that miller died from a combination of fentanyl, alcohol, and cocaine.

The use of fentanyl in cocaine is becoming more and more popular. In New York City 2016, fentanyl was found in 37 percent of overdose deaths involving cocaine, up from 11 percent in 2015. Similarly in Connecticut in 2017, fentanyl was found in 63 percent of all accidental drug deaths with cocaine involved.



When cocaine and alcohol are used together, it creates a different psychoactive substance in the body that is known as cocaethylene. The production of the substance occurs in the liver after consumption of both cocaine and alcohol.Its effects are similar to cocaine as it produces feelings of euphoria and excitement, but lasts three to five times as long.

Cocaethylene is associated with seizures, liver damage, and decreased function in the immune system. When cocaethylene is present in the body it carries a 18- to 25-fold increase over cocaine alone in risk for immediate death.

The combination of alcohol and cocaine generally tends to have major effects on heart rate, increases the risk of stroke, and can cause increased damage to the liver compared to just using cocaine or alcohol independently.


Brief History of Cocaine

Cocaine comes from the coca plant, one of the oldest plants in South America. The leafs from the plant have been used for centuries by the indigenous people of the region as they realized that users would feel a different sensation and increased energy from chewing on them.

In 1860, a German chemist, Albert Nieman, isolated cocaine from coca leaves. Eventually cocaine was experimented with for use as a surgical anesthetic.

When Coca-Cola first came out in the 1880’s, the founder, John Stith Pemberton combined cocaine and sugar to create a new soda that he first marketed toward white middle-classes but soon grew to include minorities and lower class individuals. However, the company removed the drug from the soda in 1903.

During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the streets of the United States were soon flooded with cocaine as drug cartels in South America found a market for its product. The drug saw widespread use during this time and even broke into pop culture, including having songs written about the drug like “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton.

Following the emergence of cocaine during the 1970’s disco era, The 1980’s saw a surge of crack. Public concerns over the drug and the increased pressure from the war on drugs saw something that became known as the “crack epidemic”. Laws were passed in 1986 that established criminal penalties which punished crack use. disproportionately compared to cocaine use. Opponents to the new laws said that they unfairly targeted African Americans as they were more likely to be using the drug.

Since then, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 lessened the criminal penalty ratio between the two drugs and eliminated a mandatory five-year sentence that came with crack possession.

While cocaine overdoses were decreasing in the mid 2000’s, they have since seen an uptick since 2010 and, with the increasing popularity of opioids, the drug has led to more overdoses and deaths in the United States. Cocaine currently poses a major health risk, not only due to its own destructive properties but due to the increasing likelihood of it being mixed with other drugs like fentanyl.


In Conclusion

Cocaine is a highly-powerful and addictive stimulant drug that first became popular in the illicit drug was in the 1970’s. The popularity of the drug and overdose deaths attributed to it has risen and fallen over the past few decades. More recently, the country has seen major increases in drug-related deaths that involve cocaine, this is, in part, due to the increased use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl in cocaine. If you believe that you or a loved one has a problem with cocaine or other substances, feel free to reach out to our admissions staff at Landmark Recovery. We admit patients to our state-of-the-art facilities in Oklahoma and Kentucky and offer patients help on their journey to recovery with our drug treatment programs.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.