What Is a Drug Addiction?
Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It causes compulsive drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences to the addicted person as well as the people around that person. The abuse of drugs -- even prescription drugs -- leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.
For most people, the initial decision to take prescription drugs is voluntary. Over a period of time, however, changes in the brain caused by repeated drug abuse affect a person's self control and ability to make sound decisions. While this is going on, the person continues to experience intense impulses to take more drugs.
Which Prescription Drugs Are Commonly Abused?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the three classes of prescription drugs that are often abused include:
- opioids used to treat pain
- central nervous system (CNS) depressants used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
- stimulants used to treat and narcolepsy (a sleep disorder)
Cocaine Use and Its Effects
Cocaine -- a high-priced way of getting high -- has a mystique. Called "the caviar of street drugs," Cocaine is seen as the status-heavy drug of celebrities, fashion models, and Wall Street traders.
The reality of cocaine hits after the high. Cocaine has powerful negative effects on the heart, brain, and emotions. Many cocaine users fall prey to addiction, with long-term and life threatening consequences. Even occasional users run the risk of sudden death with cocaine use. Read on for the not-so-glamorous truth about cocaine use and its effects.
Coca, Cocaine, and Crack
Cocaine is a purified extract from the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca bush. This plant grows in the Andes region of South America. Different chemical processes produce the two main forms of cocaine:
- Powdered cocaine -- commonly known on the street as "coke" or "blow" -- dissolves in water. Users can snort or inject powdered cocaine.
- Crack cocaine -- commonly known on the street as "crack" or "rock" -- is made by a chemical process that leaves it in its "freebase" form, which can be smoked.
About 14% of U.S. adults have tried cocaine. One in 40 adults has used it in the past year. Young men aged 18 to 25 are the biggest cocaine users, with 8% using it in the previous 12 months.
Cocaine: Anatomy of a High
Smoking or injecting cocaine results in nearly instantaneous effects. Rapid absorption through nasal tissues makes snorting cocaine nearly as fast-acting. Whatever the method of taking it in, cocaine quickly enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain.
Deep in the brain, cocaine interferes with the chemical messengers -- neurotransmitters -- that nerves use to communicate with each other. Cocaine blocks norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters from being reabsorbed. The resulting chemical buildup between nerves causes euphoria or feeling "high."
What's so great about being high on coke? Cocaine users often describe the euphoric feeling as:
- an increasing sense of energy and alertness
- an extremely elevated mood
- a feeling of supremacy
On the other hand, some people describe other feelings tagging along with the high:
Signs of using cocaine include:
- dilated pupils
- high levels of energy and activity
- excited, exuberant speech
Cocaine's immediate effects wear off in 30 minutes to two hours. Smoking or injecting cocaine results in a faster and shorter high, compared to snorting coke.
Physiological Effects of Cocaine
Cocaine produces its powerful high by acting on the brain. But as cocaine travels through the blood, it affects the whole body.
Cocaine is responsible for more U.S. emergency room visits than any other illegal drug. Cocaine harms the brain, heart, blood vessels, and lungs -- and can even cause sudden death. Here's what happens in the body:
- Heart. Cocaine is bad for the heart. Cocaine increases heart rate and blood pressure while constricting the arteries supplying blood to the heart. The result can be a heart attack, even in young people without heart disease. Cocaine can also trigger a deadly abnormal heart rhythm called arrythmia killing instantly.
- Brain. Cocaine can constrict blood vessels in the brain, causing strokes. This can happen even in young people without other risk factors for strokes. Cocaine causes seizures and can lead to bizarre or violent behavior.
- Lungs and respiratory system. Snorting cocaine damages the nose and sinuses. Regular use can cause nasal perforation. Smoking crack cocaine irritates the lungs and, in some people, causes permanent lung damage.
- Gastrointestinal tract. Cocaine constricts blood vessels supplying the gut. The resulting oxygen starvation can cause ulcers, or even perforation of the stomach or intestines.
- Kidneys. Cocaine can cause sudden, overwhelming kidney failure through a process called rhabdomyolysis. In people with high blood pressure, regular cocaine use can accelerate the long-term kidney damage caused by high blood pressure.
- Sexual function. Although cocaine has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, it actually may make you less able to finish what you start. Chronic cocaine use can impair sexual function in men and women. In men, cocaine can cause delayed or impaired ejaculation.
Benzodiazepines are a type of medication known as tranquilizers. Familiar names include Valium and Xanax. They are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. When people without prescriptions take these drugs for their sedating effects, then use turns into abuse.
- Doctors may prescribe a benzodiazepine for the following legitimate medical conditions:
Benzodiazepines act on the central nervous system, produce sedation and muscle relaxation, and lower anxiety levels.
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Seizure control
- Muscle relaxation
- Inducing amnesia for uncomfortable procedures
- Given before an anesthetic (such as before surgery)
Benzodiazepine Abuse Causes
Although some people may have a genetic tendency to become addicted to drugs, there is little doubt that environmental factors also play a significant role. Some of the more common environmental influences are low socioeconomic status, unemployment, and peer pressure.
Benzodiazepine Abuse Symptoms
At normal or regular doses, benzodiazepines relieve anxiety and insomnia. They are usually well tolerated. Sometimes, people taking benzodiazepines may feel drowsy or dizzy. This side effect can be more pronounced with increased doses.
- High doses of benzodiazepines can produce more serious side effects. Signs and symptoms of acute toxicity or overdose may include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty breathing
- Signs of chronic drug abuse can be very nonspecific and include changes in appearance and behavior that affect relationships and work performance. Warning signs in children include abrupt changes in mood or deterioration of school performance. Chronic abuse of benzodiazepines can lead to the following symptoms that mimic many of the indications for using them in the first place:
Despite their many helpful uses, benzodiazepines can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Dependence can result in withdrawal symptoms and even seizures when they are stopped abruptly. Dependence and withdrawal occur in only a very small percentage of people taking normal doses for short periods. The symptoms of withdrawal can be difficult to distinguish from anxiety. Symptoms usually develop at 3-4 days from last use, although they can appear earlier with shorter-acting varieties.