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When one hears the word "cocaine," nowadays, images of addiction and desperation generally come to mind. And with good reason. From the coca plant's beginnings as a source of medicine and use in religious ceremonies, it has evolved into a potent drug that has taken the lives of thousands.

Cocaine is processed from the leaves of the coca plant. While the plant has been used for thousands of years by the peoples of Bolivia and Peru, it has only relatively recently found a wider audience in drug use. Cocaine substance abuse started in the mid-19th century, after cocaine was first processed out of the coca leaf, using acid to crystallize it into a potent salt substance. In the early 1900s, cocaine was included in the many fashionable tonics sold to treat a variety of illnesses.

Now, even though cocaine is still used in very specific medical circumstances (usually as a local anesthetic for operations on the throat, eyes and ears), it is mainly known for its addictive qualities. And for good reason. Cocaine can cause severe health problems and even result in death.

How is cocaine abused?

Cocaine substance abuse usually takes place in one of two forms: crystal or freebase. The crystal form of cocaine is injected into the veins, or it is sniffed up the nose. Crystal, or powdered, cocaine is a common form, sometimes glamorized in movies as beautiful people snort lines of cocaine off a mirror. Freebase cocaine is often smoked as "crack." It is made by heating the crystal form with ammonia, baking soda and water. It is much more fast-acting than powdered cocaine because it is inhaled directly, rather than waiting for the crystal form to dissolve in the fluids of the body.

One of the things that make cocaine so dangerous is the fact that when it is bought of the street, it is often mixed with other substances. This dilutes the effects of the cocaine, serving two purposes for the dealer: to make a supply of cocaine stretch further, and to ensure that lower dose leaves the user unsatisfied and coming back for even more. Some of the things that might be mixed in with cocaine include talcum powder, sugar and cornstarch. Sometimes, to maintain or increase the stimulant effect, cocaine is mixed with amphetamines.

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Effects of cocaine substance abuse on the body

Because cocaine is such a powerful stimulant, it mainly affects the heart and lungs. Cocaine also affects the portions of the brain that deal with pleasure and rewards. Therefore, the euphoria felt when using cocaine is very pronounced - and can be extremely addictive. Cocaine leads to rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and very fast breathing. Heart attack and/or cardiac arrest can result from cocaine use. Respiratory failure and stroke can also result from cocaine substance abuse. These effects are often associated with long term cocaine substance abuse, but they have been known to result from a one-time use, or from an overdose.

Signs of a cocaine overdose include:

It is important that anyone showing signs of cocaine overdose get immediate medical treatment.

Treating cocaine substance abuse

Because cocaine works in the brain to produce euphoria (the high), it is extremely difficult to overcome cocaine substance abuse. Cocaine withdrawal does not usually present obvious physical symptoms. Withdrawal from other substances, such as alcohol and pain relievers, cause signs like vomiting and shaking. Cocaine withdrawal offers such symptoms as depression, nervousness, mood swings and anxiety.

The difficulty of treating cocaine substance is the reason that many people send their loved ones to a residential treatment facility. In these treatment centers, it is possible for a cocaine addict to receive around the clock medical care, as well as the emotional support services that may be necessary when working to overcome a cocaine substance abuse problem.

It is important to note that because cocaine use does alter some of how the brain works, even after someone has abstained from the drug for long periods of time it is possible that very strong cravings will return. This is why stays in residential treatment facilities last six to 12 months, and can sometimes last even longer.

Even though there are some drugs being tested now that are meant to help block cocaine's effects on the brain, cocaine addiction remains a very real problem in the United States today. It is important not to underestimate the problems that can be caused by cocaine substance abuse.