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While cocaine use has dropped significantly in the last decade, it remains a problem for those exposed to the drug at a young age. Cocaine is a powerful stimulant, no matter what form it takes or how it is consumed. Teens who use cocaine experience a mighty dopamine dump and are liable to use it again, mostly because their brains are more susceptible to both the drug’s short-term and long-term effects.

Continued use can lead to dependence and addiction. Like other stimulants, cocaine’s effects on the heart and brain can lead to a drastically shortened lifespan, especially in those addicted to it. The mental health effects of cocaine addiction in teens should not be understated either. Despite triggering euphoria, cocaine use can drastically worsen existing symptoms of anxiety and trigger panic attacks.

Cocaine dependence and addiction can worsen depression, and teens already struggling with mental health conditions are more likely to get hooked on addictive drugs like cocaine. Swift professional treatment, access to helpful physical and mental health resources, and a long-term support system are critical in helping teens with cocaine addiction.

Do Teens Still Use Cocaine?

Although cocaine use has dropped off since the mid-80s, with a dramatic drop occurring around 2009 onwards, nearly a million Americans (913,000) met the diagnostic criteria for cocaine addiction in 2014. The heaviest users now and at the time were young college-aged students, between ages 18-25 (specifically 18-20), who also experienced the most significant drop in user numbers since.

Factors for why cocaine has become less popular include its price and the fact that most teens across all three surveyed school grades (8th, 10th, and 12th grades) overwhelmingly disapprove of cocaine use. That being said, the perceived risk of the drug has gone down somewhat.

Cocaine overdoses and deaths in popular media are no longer relatively as fresh on the mind of today’s youth than it was for the previous generation. While teens still crack cocaine as one of the most dangerous illegal drugs available, they are less disapproving of single-time cocaine use than before.

Cocaine and the Opioid Crisis

Despite the lower perceived risk, cocaine has also become much more dangerous. While cocaine itself is a powerful stimulant, rising death rates point to a dangerous trend of mixing the illegal drug with a powerful synthetic opioid called fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a hundred times stronger than morphine and is usually used in extraordinarily controlled and low doses to address terminal and intractable pain. When mixed into cocaine to cut costs and increase potency, it can lead to a much higher risk of overdose and death.

This new trend is directly related to the opioid crisis, which has led the charge in drug-related deaths after over-prescription of painkillers and unscrupulous marketing tactics in the 1990s eventually led to an increase in illegal opioid use, a resurgence of heroin, and opioid-related overdoses.

While fentanyl is one of the most potent and dangerous additives found in cocaine, it is far from the only one. Because of its cost, cocaine is often cut with other at-times toxic substances, many of which might not elicit a short-term reaction but can lead to significant long-term brain and organ damage.

Signs of Cocaine Addiction in Teens

Cocaine addiction can have a severe physical and mental impact on teens. Symptoms differ depending on the drug’s purity, the filler substances used (if any), and whether a teen is currently coming down from a high, experiencing withdrawal, or presently high. Some common signs of cocaine use and cocaine addiction in teens include:

While using:

  • Manic behavior
  • Low or no appetite
  • Excessive energy and talkativeness (compared to their usual demeanor)
  • Feelings of invincibility and grandeur (more so than other teens)
  • Extreme irritability
  • Excessive sleep
  • Erratic mood

While coming down:

  • Nightmares
  • Signs of depression (long-term low mood and low self-esteem)
  • Signs of anxiety (nervousness, long-term dread or panic, constant worry)
  • Suicidal ideation

Physical signs of frequent use:

  • Twitching or occasional “shakes”
  • Runny nose and no other cold symptoms
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Unexplained nosebleeds
  • Needle marks (cocaine may be injected instead)
  • Drug paraphernalia (glass pipe for crack cocaine)

Long-Term Effects of Teen Cocaine Addiction

The long-term effects of cocaine depend on the severity of use, frequency of use, the additives found in the drug, and the consumption method. For example, injecting the drug carries a much higher risk of HIV or hepatitis, especially when sharing needles. Some of the long-term effects of cocaine addiction in teens include:

Neurological Effects of Cocaine Addiction

In its pure form, the powerful stimulant effects of cocaine can be addictive, particularly for a developing brain. A modern understanding of addiction defines it as a brain disease or neurological condition. Regular drug use leads to a physical and mental dependence on the drug and the associated phenomenon of withdrawal, growing drug tolerance, and overdose risk.

Teen brains are underdeveloped and more likely to get addicted and be addicted for longer, as most severe addictions correlate with early drug use. While the immediate effects of cocaine on the brain are felt as “positive” (boundless energy, increased motivation, and a manic feeling), the long-term effects are severely adverse. They include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Chronic headaches
  • Loss of motivation
  • Feeling excessively tired
  • Feeling unable to function without the drug
  • Feelings of paranoia

Physical Effects of Cocaine Addiction

Aside from the physical risk of overdose, cocaine’s long-term toxicity is felt the most in the heart, liver, and brain, where the drug can cause severe damage and induce a stroke, heart attack, or liver failure. Most heavy cocaine users also displayed abnormal liver function and were at a much higher risk of heart-related illnesses and sudden death. Cocaine use can also lead to other physical dangers due to being high, sharing needles, or reaching a near-toxic dose.

How to Help and When to Seek Treatment

While fewer teens use cocaine than before, it’s still a problem for many teens, and nearly a third of surveyed teens reported that finding and buying cocaine today would be relatively easy. Treating cocaine addiction can be difficult because of how addiction affects the teen brain. However, a dedicated and individualized treatment plan and long-term support can significantly reduce the chance of a relapse and help teens learn to cope with cravings and develop the toolset to combat their addiction: the earlier treatment starts, the better.