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Snorting vs. Smoking Cocaine: How Each Affects the Body

Cocaine is a drug that can be ingested in a variety of ways, including by snorting, smoking, or intravenous injection. The chosen method of ingestion can have different effects on the body, including how rapidly it enters the bloodstream and how it affects different systems in the body.

Cocaine is a highly addictive substance that binds to the reward and pleasure sensors in the brain, creating a positive association for the substance. The areas of the brain most impacted by the drug include sites that have dopamine synapses where cocaine binds. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that facilitates pleasurable feelings.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that different methods of ingesting cocaine can have different implications for addiction and physiological response. People who use cocaine need to be aware of the potential side effects and impacts of the different kinds of ingestion.

The Impact of Snorting Cocaine

Snorting cocaine in its hydrochloride salt form has historically been the most commonly used method of ingestion. This results in a high that can last from 15 to 45 minutes.

People typically snort cocaine by snorting individual lines or smaller bumps of powdered cocaine. The person sniffs the substance up into the nose through one nostril and then often alternates nostrils.

When cocaine is snorted, it must travel from nose to the heart through the blood vessels before then being pumped to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. The substance then travels back to the heart before being pumped out to the rest of the organs in the body as well as the brain.

Snorting cocaine can cause several side effects specific to the method of ingestion, including:

  • Damaged sense of smell. Ingesting cocaine through the nose causes the substance to come into direct contact with the blood vessels in the nose, which can damage the nerves in the nose over time.
  • Nosebleeds. This side effect can also occur due to damage in the nasal passages when cocaine is snorted.
  • Runny nose. This is another unpleasant side effect that is linked to the damage in the nasal passages from snorting cocaine.
  • Difficulty swallowing. This can occur due to the substance’s contact with the throat as it is absorbed into the body.

The Impact of Smoking Cocaine

Cocaine can be processed into freebase so that it can be smoked by converting the powder form to cocaine sulfate. The rock form of cocaine that can be smoked is commonly referred to as “crack cocaine.” This form is processed using baking soda and heat until a rock is formed that can then be smoked.

Smoking the drug affects the brain more quickly than snorting. When cocaine is smoked, it goes directly into the lungs to be oxygenated rather than having to travel through the blood vessels to the heart first. Oxygenated blood can then go directly from the lungs to the heart and brain.

The high achieved by smoking cocaine also dissipates quickly, so individuals may want to quickly use another dose to maintain the original high. The high from smoking rock cocaine lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. This is why people can end up smoking large amounts of cocaine in a short period.

Smoking cocaine also creates a more intense high in the person using the substance. Because it is more concentrated, the intensity of the high is elevated; this further contributes to the addictive qualities of the substance.

Smoking cocaine can also have several unpleasant side effects, such as:

  • Cough
  • Respiratory problems
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Asthma
  • Damage to the esophagus

All of these effects result from damage to the respiratory system caused by the inhalation of cocaine directly into the lungs.

Is Smoking or Snorting More Addictive?

With any drug, the probability of addiction is increased when the drug reaches the brain faster. The reward and pleasure centers are highly stimulated, and the brain creates positive reinforcement for the substance of abuse. The faster this stimulation happens, the quicker addictive cycles set in and the greater the likelihood of abuse.

Snorting Cocaine

Forms of cocaine that can be smoked are more concentrated. They are associated with higher chances for addiction and more severe dependency.

A study published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology found that people who snorted cocaine had better treatment outcomes than those who smoked cocaine. People who used cocaine intranasally remained in treatment longer and trended toward longer periods of sustained abstinence.

This does not mean that powdered cocaine is a safe alternative to smoked cocaine. The study also found that despite better treatment outcomes in some areas of measurement, these users still experienced the same severity of problems in other areas of their lives.

Treatment for Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine addiction treatment will be similar regardless of the method of ingestion. Many people who use cocaine may use multiple methods of ingestion, and they may also have polysubstance dependence.

Individuals with a dependency on cocaine may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, such as:

  • Intense cocaine cravings
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Fatigue

Fortunately, many of these symptoms can be reduced or managed with an appropriate detox protocol that is designed for each individual, according to their specific treatment needs. After detoxing from cocaine, ongoing substance abuse therapy is recommended to ensure long-term success in recovery.