Cocaine is a stimulant drug with a long history of devastation in the United States. Cocaine use has remained stable over the past decade, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there were an estimated 1.5 million current cocaine users in 2014 over age 12. This number equates to 0.6 percent of the total population. Adults between the ages of 18 and 25 had the highest rate of cocaine use among any other age group, with an estimated 1.4 percent of young adults reporting cocaine use in the previous month. 

The repeated use of cocaine will lead to a substance use disorder (SUD) and other serious health consequences. In 2014, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 913,000 Americans met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for dependence or abuse of cocaine in the previous 12 months. Other data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that cocaine was involved in 505,224 of the 1.3 million visits to the emergency room for abuse. The figure equates to over one in three drug misuse or abuse-related emergency department visits involving cocaine. 

The use of prescription stimulants for conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common, but illicit stimulants like cocaine can cause more harm than good. ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders that affect children and adults. An estimated 6.1 million children in the United States, translating to 9.4 percent between the ages of two and 17, are estimated to have been diagnosed with the condition. 

According to a 2016 study, adult ADHD is estimated to affect 2.8 percent of all adults, which are the ones who are diagnosed. For example, ADHD in women doesn’t provide the same symptoms as men, making it much harder to diagnose. The figures could be much higher. With that said, it could mean women and men alike use the drug to self-medicate and treat the symptoms of their ADHD. This is extremely dangerous and should never be done. If you’re concerned about ADHD, visit a psychiatrist and talk about your options. 

Since cocaine use and ADHD are both common, it’s necessary to explore why an individual may use cocaine to treat their ADHD. Below we’ll explore the use of stimulant drugs in treating the condition and go in-depth to learn more about the disorder and cocaine. 

What Is Cocaine?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines cocaine as a potent and addictive stimulant drug. Despite its emergence over the past several decades in the United States and abroad, the coca leaves, which are the source of cocaine, have been chewed by people in South America for thousands of years for its stimulant effects. The purified chemical cocaine hydrochloride was only found a little over 100 years ago. 

During the early 1900s, purified cocaine was the primary ingredient in various tonics and elixirs developed to treat many illnesses. It was even the main ingredient in earlier iterations of Coca-Cola. It was later replaced with caffeine. Before local anesthetics, cocaine was used by surgeons to block pain during routine procedures. Research has found the dangers of cocaine and that it’s a powerful and addictive substance that alters our brain structure and function when used repeatedly. 

Cocaine is categorized as a Schedule II drug today, meaning it has a high potential to be abused. However, it can be administered by a physician for medical uses, including local anesthesia and some ear, eye, and throat surgeries. One of the primary issues with cocaine, especially if you’re using it for something like ADHD, dealers often cut their product with substances like talcum powder, cornstarch, flour, powder, or baking soda to increase profits. Even worse, cocaine could be adulterated with several other dangerous substances, including amphetamine or fentanyl. This can lead to an immediate overdose if you’re not used to the effects of opioids. 

How Does Cocaine Produce Its Effects?

Cocaine affects the neurotransmitter dopamine, the reward pathway responsible for pleasure. In the normal communication process, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse and binds to dopamine receptors on a neighboring neuron. The process acts as a chemical messenger and carries the signal from one neuron to another. A specialized protein known as the transporter removes dopamine from the synapse to be recycled for use in the future. 

Drugs of abuse like cocaine interfere with the normal communication process. For this reason, using it to treat ADHD can be problematic. Cocaine binds to the dopamine receptors and blocks the removal of dopamine from the synapse. Although it works in a similar manner as Adderall, a drug used to treat ADHD, Adderall isn’t typically abused. Cocaine is generally binged and depletes the dopamine in your brain, leading to long-term problems. 

How Does Cocaine Change the Brain?

Cocaine use will lead to long-term effects. Animals that are chronically exposed to the illicit stimulant demonstrated significant changes in glutamate neurotransmission, including how much is released of receptor proteins in the reward pathway. Chronic cocaine abuse can also affect other areas of the brain. Animal research found that cocaine diminishes functioning in the orbitofrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for decision-making, which is affected by cocaine. It can also cause an inability to adapt to the adverse consequences of drug use.

Short-Term Effects of Cocaine and Why It Doesn’t Work for ADHD


The effects of cocaine will show up immediately after consumption and disappear just as fast. Minimal amounts of cocaine will cause a user to feel energetic, euphoric, talkative, mentally alert, and hypersensitive to sound, touch, and sight. The drug also decreases the need for sleep and food temporarily. Some users rely on cocaine to perform mundane physical and intellectual tasks faster, while others experience the opposite effect. 

Depending on the route of administration, the duration of cocaine’s effects will vary. When a drug is absorbed into your system quicker, it’ll result in a more intense high but also a shorter duration. Snorting cocaine produces a slower onset of the stimulating effects but lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. The high from smoking the drug is immediate but lasts anywhere from five to 10 minutes. Due to its short duration of action, cocaine is not an ideal option to treat ADHD. Drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse, all of which are used to treat ADHD, last much longer in our system and help treat the symptoms. 

Short-term effects of cocaine include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. A person who takes a significant amount of cocaine will experience an intense high, leading to erratic, bizarre, or violent behavior. Some cocaine users report feeling irritable, restless, anxious, panicked, and paranoid. Users also report vertigo, tremors, and muscle twitches. 

Cocaine use is dangerous, and if you’ve been using it to self-medicate, you should stop immediately. Severe complications can arise with the use of the drug, including cardiovascular events such as disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attack. Other neurological effects include seizures, headaches, stroke, and coma. Gastrointestinal complications include nausea and abdominal pain. On rare occasions, sudden death can occur after someone’s first time trying cocaine or unexpectedly right after. Cocaine-related overdoses are typically the result of cardiac arrest or seizures. 

Many cocaine users consume alcohol in conjunction with the stimulant drug. The two drugs react to produce cocaethylene and can potentiate the toxic effects of alcohol and cocaine on the heart. The combination of heroin and cocaine is also dangerous due to their depressant properties. It can lead to a person using significant amounts of heroin without realizing it. Since the effects of cocaine wear off sooner, it can cause a heroin overdose where the individual’s breathing slows down or stops.

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine 

Repeated exposure to the stimulant drug will cause pathways to become less sensitive to natural reinforcers. If you’re battling ADHD, damaging your brain’s pathways that cause you to become increasingly insensitive, displeased, and exhibit negative moods when you aren’t using the drug will cause your ADHD to be worse. The combined effects will make the individual focus more on seeking the drug over food, relationships, and other natural rewards. A person having troubles with mental health disorders like ADHD can have devastating consequences from long-term cocaine use. 

Not to mention, regular use of cocaine will lead to tolerance, more frequent use of the stimulant drug. It can lead to needing to use more of the drug for the same level of pleasure and alleviate withdrawal symptoms they might experience. Users can also develop sensitization, where less cocaine is needed to produce convulsions, anxiety, or other toxic effects. Both tolerance and sensitization can increase the chances of a regular user overdosing. 

Cocaine isn’t like Adderall that’s used once or twice a day, depending on your doctor’s recommendations. Cocaine is taken in binges, and it is used repeatedly and in increasingly higher doses. It can lead to restlessness, irritability, paranoia, panic attacks, and full-blown psychosis, where the person loses touch with reality and experiences auditory hallucinations.

When increasing the dose or using more cocaine, the risk of adverse physiological and psychological effects increases dramatically. Animal research has found that cocaine binges during adolescence enhance sensitivity to the rewarding effects of MDMA and cocaine, meaning binge use of cocaine in your youth can further increase vulnerability to continued use of the drug among some individuals. 

Specific routes of cocaine use can cause specific adverse side effects. For example, those who regularly snort the drug can lose their sense of smell, have nosebleeds, issues with swallowing, hoarseness, and an overall irritation of the nasal septum, which can lead to a chronically inflamed and runny nose. Smoking crack cocaine can worsen asthma and cause irreversible lung damage, and those who inject the stimulant will have puncture marks known as tracks in their forearms. It can cause them to contract infectious diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. The individual could also encounter an allergic reaction to the drug or its additives. In severe cases, it can be fatal. 

Cocaine can also lead to severe damage to your bodily organs. The drug reduces blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to ulcerations and tears with repeated use. Chronic cocaine users will experience significant weight loss and malnourishment due to the appetite loss it causes. Cocaine also has notorious toxic effects on the cardiovascular system and heart. Chest pain can cause an individual to feel like they’re having a heart attack and send them to the emergency room. Cocaine use can also cause stroke, as well as inflammation of your heart muscle, aortic ruptures, and deterioration of the ability of the heart to contract. 

On top of the increased odds of seizures and stroke, long-term cocaine use can also lead to other neurological issues. There have been reports of intracerebral hemorrhage, also known as bleeding in the brain. It can also cause balloon-like bulges in the walls of the cerebral blood vessels. Years of cocaine use can also cause movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Studies have shown that cognitive functions are impaired with long-term cocaine consumption. These include impulse inhibition, memory problems, making decisions that involve rewards or punishments, performing motor tasks, and sustaining attention, which doesn’t bode well for someone with ADHD. 

Cocaine is a highly addictive drug, and former users are at high risk of relapsing, no matter how long they’ve been sober from the drug. Research has also found that during periods of abstinence, the memory of the cocaine experience or exposure to cues of the drug will trigger strong cravings and cause relapse.  

Is Cocaine Abuse and Alcoholism More Common in Those with ADHD?

There are various studies showing the connection between alcoholism, drug abuse, and ADHD. ADHD is said to be five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in those without the disorder. Adults that receive treatment for alcohol and substance abuse have ADHD at a 25 percent clip

Children with ADHD are also more likely to start abusing alcohol during their teens. In one study, 14 percent of children between the ages of 15 and 17 with ADHD had issues with alcohol abuse or dependence when they grew up. Another study found that 40 percent of children with ADHD between using alcohol, in comparison to 22 percent of children without the disorder. Both studies show the correlation between alcohol and substance abuse in adulthood. Young adults with a mean age of 25 were just as likely to consume alcohol whether or not they were diagnosed with ADHD. However, those with ADHD were more likely to drink excessively.

Research has also shown a link between ADHD, marijuana use, and other recreational drugs, most commonly in those with other psychological disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those with ADHD will start having problems with alcohol and drugs at a much earlier age than those without the condition. 

Why Are Those with ADHD More Likely to Abuse Alcohol and Drugs like Cocaine?

Those with ADHD are more impulsive and are more likely to have behavioral problems. Both of these issues can lead to the abuse of drugs and alcohol, according to researchers. Unfortunately, both alcoholism and ADHD tend to run in families. Children with ADHD with an alcoholic parent are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Researchers point to common genetics shared with alcoholism and ADHD. 

Can Stimulant Drugs for ADHD Be Addictive?

Parents often worry about their children’s use of stimulant drugs to treat their ADHD. Despite the therapeutic benefits, Adderall and Ritalin can be addictive. Stimulant medications work to raise the levels of dopamine in our brain, helping to improve focus and attention, which people with ADHD have challenges mastering. 

Dopamine is responsible for regulating the feeling of pleasure, and using drugs like cocaine or prescription stimulants may cause a high that leaves people wanting more. Ritalin can increase focus and energy, leading some people to label the drug as the “poor man’s cocaine.” Parents should always monitor their children and report findings to the doctor. 

It’s common for those to use ADHD stimulants without a prescription. Individuals have even crushed and snorted Ritalin or dissolved the drug in water to use intravenously. Abusing Ritalin can lead to dependency. However, when used carefully and following doctors’ orders, it’s less likely to be addictive in children or adults. 

When used in more substantial doses, meaning higher than what is prescribed by a doctor to treat ADHD, Ritalin will produce effects similar to cocaine. However, there are marked differences between the two stimulant drugs. One factor that causes addiction and drug abuse is how quickly the drug raises your dopamine levels. The faster these levels increase, the higher the odds of abuse. Ritalin takes about an hour to raise dopamine levels in the brain, while cocaine can achieve it in seconds. 

The doses of Ritalin or other drugs used to treat ADHD are much lower and longer-acting, reducing the risk of developing an addiction. However, long-term use of any stimulant may lead to tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same effects. If this occurs to you, it’s vital to contact your doctor and ask them how to proceed. They might be inclined to have you use non-stimulant medications to treat the condition. 

Does Using Stimulants for ADHD Lead to Substance Abuse?

As a parent, it’s natural to feel concerned about giving your child stimulants to treat their ADHD. It could lead their child to experiment with other drugs like cocaine. There are many studies looking into the link between ADHD stimulant medication and substance abuse issues. However, there doesn’t appear to be much of a connection. 

A long-term study that followed 100 boys with ADHD for 10 years found no greater risk of substance abuse in those who used stimulant drugs compared to those who didn’t use the drugs. An even earlier study conducted by the same authors suggested that early stimulant use could actually prevent alcoholism and drug abuse later in life for children with ADHD. It’s said to relieve the symptoms that lead to substance abuse problems. The earlier a stimulant drug is started in the child, the lower the potential for substance abuse later in life. 

ADHD is a serious condition that can have lasting consequences in a person’s life but using drugs like cocaine to treat the disease is advised against. If you’re concerned about a mental health disorder or addiction, it’s vital to get in touch with medical professionals and develop a treatment course. Changing your life can be as easy as picking up the phone.

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