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Cocaine Withdrawal and Treatment

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a substance derived from the leaves of the coca plant. Illicit forms of the substance include a white powder as well as a freebase, crystalline solid known as crack cocaine.1,2 The various forms of cocaine can be smoked, snorted, and injected.1,2 Though pharmaceutical cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride solution) has historically been used as a local anesthetic during certain surgical procedures, illicit supplies of the drug and its prevalent misuse far outweigh such legitimate medical uses.3

At certain doses, cocaine use is associated with a pronounced sense of euphoria. Its interaction with our brain’s reward system leads to a powerful reinforcement of use that contributes to its widespread abuse across a number of demographics.1,2 According to the 2016 national Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), roughly 1.9 million people aged 12 or older were current users of cocaine.The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 3.9% of 12th graders have used cocaine at some point in their lives.2

Dangers of Cocaine Use

Consistent cocaine use often leads to significant physiological dependence and addiction development.5 Someone addicted to cocaine is at risk of many unwanted physical and mental health effects and decreased well-being.1,2 As the negative health effects accumulate, the person may wish to quit using; however, the associated physiological cocaine dependence can make this process challenging. Not only will the individual likely encounter strong cravings for more cocaine, but they may also have to endure a period of discomfort and distress.3,4 Called acute cocaine withdrawal, the effects associated with abruptly quitting cocaine, though different for each person, can be quite unpleasant, especially without proper care.

Cocaine Withdrawal Symptoms

Though acute cocaine withdrawal syndrome may present differently amongst individuals, many people experience more psychological or emotional issues rather than severe physical symptoms. During withdrawal, someone may experience the following: 2,7

  • Strong cocaine cravings.
  • Exhaustion and lethargy.
  • Slowed movements and thoughts.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Low mood/depression.
  • Anhedonia (diminished ability to derive pleasure from previously enjoyable activities).
  • Poor attention and concentration.
  • Insomnia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Restlessness/agitation.
  • Paranoia and confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Vivid dreams.
  • Irritability.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Dehydration.
  • Chills.

How Long Does Cocaine Withdrawal Last?

The detoxification process and the precise timeline for accompanying withdrawal is somewhat unpredictable depending on many individual differences related to cocaine abuse.Cocaine withdrawal symptoms will often emerge within 24 hours after last use and continue for between 3 and 5 days, although some symptoms may persist for weeks.6,7

Cocaine Withdrawal Complications

Though cocaine withdrawal may not pose the same pronounced physical risks as acute alcohol or sedative withdrawal, there are some potential complications to be aware of. The most serious hazards of cocaine detox include the following:2,7

  • Cardiovascular issues: Any stimulant abuse puts additional strain on the heart. With heavy use, problems may arise during detox like heart attack, stroke, or irregular heartbeat.
  • Seizures may be a complication of active stimulant misuse but may continue throughout the withdrawal period.
  • Mental health risks: Perhaps the most significant health effects of cocaine detox involve the individual’s mental health.
    • Depression: The level of negative thoughts can be profound. Depression may lead to suicide, especially in an individual with established depressive disorders.
    • Violence: During the period of agitation, confusion, paranoia, and hallucinations, a person can lash out violently against strangers or loved ones.
  • Cravings: The strength of cocaine cravings throughout detox can result in relapse.

Cocaine Detox Options

There are no medications specifically approved for the treatment of cocaine withdrawal, so treatment will focus on monitoring symptoms and providing a safe environment to limit harm to self and others.7

Cocaine detox may take place in a variety of treatment settings including the following:10

  • Outpatient detox: For people with strong support and limited risks, outpatient treatment allows the individual to go to work or school, attend treatment, and return home on their path to recovery. Outpatient treatment is available at doctor’s offices or community addiction treatment centers.
  • Inpatient detox: Perhaps the best fit for people at high risk of severe and/or complicated withdrawal and with fewer supports at home, inpatient detox programs provide 24-hour supervision, support, and, when needed, medical intervention while the recovering individual lives at the treatment center. Inpatient detox may be available in hospital-based or other residential treatment settings.

Detox provides a solid foundation for recovery, but it is not a substitute for substance use treatment.10 Those interested in long-term recovery and abstinence from cocaine abuse will benefit from some form of professional addiction treatment.

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