Cocaine is an illicit stimulant that can have a powerful impact on the user’s health and wellbeing. The powder form of cocaine is most commonly snorted or dissolved in liquid and injected.1 The more potent, hard-rock form of cocaine is known as crack and can be smoked.1More than 900,000 people met the criteria for cocaine dependence or abuse in 2014, and abuse rates have remained fairly stable since 2009.2
No matter the form, cocaine’s effects can come on quickly and some users will suffer an overdose and its potentially lasting consequences.
Nearly 5,500 people died from a cocaine overdose in 2014 alone,3 and knowing the overdose symptoms may help someone get the medical help that he or she needs to survive it.
Can You Overdose on Cocaine?
Cocaine abuse results in powerful stimulant effects. When taken in high doses, a person can lethally overstimulate their body and brain. This is known as a cocaine overdose. During an overdose, a cocaine user may experience the amplification of cocaine’s usual effects, such as increased heart rate and body temperature. Experiencing these extreme stimulant effects can lead to the failure of a number of organ systems and physiologic functions—causing the body or brain to shut down, and sometimes resulting in death.
Cocaine Overdose Symptoms
Typical signs of a cocaine overdose include:7
- Dangerously high blood pressure.
- Irregular heart rate.
- Extremely high body temperature.
- Extreme anxiety or confusion.
- Agitation or tremors.
These symptoms may precede the onset of a fatal heart attack, stroke, or seizure. Overdose death following cocaine use is generally the result of dangerous overstimulation, and the best way to prevent overdose death is to get treatment for cocaine abuse right away.
Signs of Cocaine Use
Cocaine abuse can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health. There is even some evidence suggesting that cocaine can actually kill brain cells.4 When cocaine is abused, the user experiences a multitude of reinforcing effects, from euphoria to increased energy and a sense of outgoingness.5 Hidden behind this enrapturing face is a darker myriad of unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Tightened blood vessels.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Dilated pupils.
- High body temperature.
- Reduced appetite.
- Restlessness or insomnia.
- Anxiety, panic, or paranoia.
- Strange or erratic behavior.
- Tremors or muscle twitches.
On top of these basic effects, cocaine abuse can lead to serious cardiovascular consequences, including heart attacks; and neurological issues, including headaches, strokes, seizures, and sometimes coma.6 When people use cocaine, they find that the sought-after euphoric effects seem to diminish over time, leading to an escalating use pattern that can have problematic results, including overdose.
Cocaine Overdose Treatment
If you suspect that someone may be experiencing a cocaine overdose, it is vital that you call 911 right away. Immediate professional medical help is the best option to improve a person’s chances of survival.
Once help is on the way, there are a few things you can do to help a person suffering from cocaine overdose:
- If users have a seizure, make sure there is nothing nearby that they can hurt themselves on.
- Get a cold compress and put it on them to help keep their body temperature down.
- Stay with them until medical help arrives.
Once they are in emergency care, they will be monitored closely for heart complications, temperature problems, hypoglycemia, and neuropsychiatric issues.8 In some cases, benzodiazepines are necessary to help calm the patient down.8
The best way to avoid cocaine overdose is to not do cocaine at all. For some people, this means getting help with an existing abuse problem. Professional substance abuse treatment can help a user recover from a cocaine addiction through therapy, relapse prevention training, addiction education, learning effective coping strategies, and providing a sober network of support.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). DrugFacts: Cocaine.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2015. HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.
- Guha, P., Harraz, M. M., & Snyder, S. H. (2016). Cocaine elicits autophagic cytotoxicity via a nitric oxide-GAPDH signaling cascade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(5), 1417-1422.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?
- Riezzo, I., Fiore, C., De Carlo, D., Pascale, N., Neri, M., Turillazzi, E., & Fineschi, V. (2012). Side effects of cocaine abuse: multiorgan toxicity and pathological consequences. Current Medicinal Chemistry, 19(33). 5624-5646.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2016). MedlinePlus: Cocaine intoxication.
- Medscape. (2016). Cocaine Toxicity Treatment & Management.