Why Does Cocaine Harm Teens More Than Adults?

Drugs & Alcohol

Why Does Cocaine Harm Teens More Than Adults?

Cocaine addiction is a pervasive problem in the US that affects all populations, including teenagers. Teenagers are known for their impulsive behaviors. When compared with adults, teenagers are more likely to follow their emotions before logic, and they are more likely to ignore the long-term consequences of their actions. The brain is still developing during adolescence, and taking drugs, especially cocaine, during this time can hinder development and cause problems in the future.

Cocaine use is actually on the decline despite its availability. One study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, leveraged data from the national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys from 1999 to 2015 to determine trend in cocaine use among high school students in the US. Researchers found that the rate of cocaine use among adolescents has been on the decline overall since the 1990’s.

What is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a very addictive stimulant drug that comes  from coca leaves that grow in South America. If used repeatedly, cocaine can change the structure of the brain and affect overall function. It’s a Schedule II drug due to its high potential for abuse, although it has legitimate medical uses for certain surgeries. On the street cocaine can be referred to as Coke, Powder, C, Snow or Blow.

Cocaine is a widely available drug in the US. It comes in two forms: powder that can be dissolved and injected or snorted and crack, which is the freebase form of the drug that is typically smoked. Both forms are extremely addictive and can be very harmful – especially for teenagers.

Teenagers and Cocaine Use

While many people who use cocaine started at some point in their 20’s, teenagers have also been known to try the drug. The US. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 5% of all high school-aged students (grades 9-12) say they’ve tried one or more forms of cocaine at least once in their lifetime (6% of males, 4% of females).The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for 2016, which includes kids as young as 12, found that 0.9% of people between the ages of 12 and 17 had tried cocaine at least once during their lifetime, while 0.5% self-reported cocaine use within the last year.

There are a number of reasons why teenagers try drugs, including:

Other people

The social scene for many teenagers revolves around substance abuse, including drinking or smoking marijuana. In the extreme cases, cocaine is involved, and peer pressure may lead them to join in. Teenagers may mistake the behavior as normal and underestimate the consequences.


Drug use is everywhere in the media – from music to television to movies. Many people using drugs in media do not discuss the harm they have suffered, so teenagers may mistakenly believe drug use is risk-free.


Adolescent years can be a rough emotional rollercoaster, so teenagers may feel as though drugs can provide an escape from their unhappiness or frustrations. Academic stress may also play a role in a teenager’s decision to start abusing drugs.


Many teenagers find themselves bored and unable to tolerate being unoccupied. Drugs and other substances not only give them something to do – they also make them feel good.


Rebellion is a common trait among teenagers, and doing drugs may be one of the ways they choose to defy rules.

Quick gratification

Drugs work quickly, and teenagers enjoy the immediate effects of pleasure. For them, drugs can serve as a shortcut to happiness.


Teenagers that lack self-confidence may find themselves doing things they would not otherwise do in order to fit in, including taking drugs. Drugs also take away inhibitions, which can help teenagers get themselves out of their shell in social settings.

Lack of information

Put simply, teenagers may not understand just how dangerous drugs can be. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that, in 2015, cocaine was the cause of more than 6,700 deaths in the US.

Effect of Cocaine Use on the Body and Brain

Unlike adult years, adolescence is a crucial time for neurodevelopment, and adopting a cocaine addiction during these years can have negative consequences on brain development. One investigation, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, found that people who began using cocaine during their teenage years showed more obvious cognitive deficits than those who began using the drug later in life. Drug use during adolescence interferes with the brain programming process, and ultimately young people involved with prolonged cocaine use can suffer from issues with sustained attention, working memory and declarative memory.

All drugs, including cocaine, interfere with the way neurons (nerve cells) communicate with the brain. Neurons send messages by releasing neurotransmitters that attach to molecules called receptors. There are many different types of neurotransmitters, but dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. Under normal circumstances, dopamine is recycled back into the cell that released it, which ends the pleasure signal. Cocaine and other stimulants prevent this recycling process and therefore intense pleasure is sustained. It gets to the point where people who use cocaine are unable to feel pleasure without it.

The surge of dopamine in the brain from cocaine use has several different effects on the body:

  • Blood vessel constriction and dilated pupils
  • Elevated body temperature and blood pressure
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Insomnia

Over time with repeated use, people can develop a tolerance for cocaine and an inability to find pleasure in normal activities. This causes them to chase that high and ultimately leads to an addiction. The consequences of these behaviors on brain development can be substantial.

Long-term Health Effects of Cocaine Use

The brain is not the only part of the body that suffers from cocaine abuse during the teenage years. Prolonged abuse of cocaine can lead to a myriad of physical problems in the future – some of which is irreversible. Physical problems can include:

Cardiovascular issues

High blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and vasoconstriction are some of the immediate cardiovascular side effects of cocaine abuse. Longer term effects can include blood clots, chest pain from blood vessel tightening, stroke, pulmonary embolism and heart attack.

Nose and mouth damage

Cocaine, when snorted, can directly damage mucous membranes in the nose. Ultimately, the soft tissues in the nose can be damaged to the point where it dies off and exposes the cartilage lining between nasal cavities. This can lead to a hole in the septum.

Respiratory issues and pulmonary damage

Snorting cocaine can lead to damage in the throat and upper respiratory system, while smoking crack cocaine can cause serious respiratory issues. Higher risk of infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis, asthma, chronic cough and acute respiratory distress are some of possible long-term effects.

Gastrointestinal damage

Cocaine can restrict blood flow throughout the body, which can damage different organ systems over time. Long-term gastrointestinal side effects include ulcers, ischemic colitis, digestive difficulties and even death.

Infectious diseases

People with an addiction to cocaine or crack cocaine face a higher likelihood for contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Needle sharing can increase this risk, but cocaine also inhibits decision-making processes and leads to increased risk-taking and sexual drive. Cocaine can also impair the immune system.

Reproductive health

Cocaine abuse can severely impair the development of reproductive organs, which can affect one’s ability to have children later in life.

Signs of Cocaine Addiction in Teenagers

Some of the hallmark behaviors and trends of teenage years include risk taking and vulnerability to peer pressure. Drug abuse during teenage years can lead to lifelong complications, so it is important to know the signs of drug abuse and how to address the problem.

Here are a few things you should keep an eye out for:

Changes in normal habits

Changes to normal habits can seem like isolated events, but typically several habits change, which can make them easier to notice. Key changes can include:

  • Changes in appetite, and with cocaine this would look like a decrease in appetite
  • A new friend group, especially if many of the other friends they used to spend a lot of time with have disappeared
  • Complaints from school about misbehavior or bad grades
  • Becoming more combative at home and having more pronounced mood swings

Changes in physical appearance

Physical changes, like behavior changes, are easier to spot when they happen in groups. These can include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unexplained wounds, bruises, or track marks on the arms
  • Wearing long sleeves even when it’s hot outside
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Careless hygiene and a generally disheveled appearance
  • Tremors and shaking
  • Nosebleeds without having a runny nose
  • Chapped lips

Uncharacteristically secretive behavior

Some teenagers are naturally withdrawn and introverted, but if the teenager is an extrovert that suddenly becomes more quiet and aloof, you may need to take a look a closer look at why. Some behaviors to watch out for include:

  • Sneaking out at night or disappearing for extended periods of time
  • Locking doors
  • Stealing
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Missing classes, work or extracurricular activities

Detoxification from Cocaine

Detoxing from cocaine should be medically supervised. The detox timeline for cocaine and other stimulants spans from about a week to several months. Physical symptoms peak about a weak after stoppage, while psychological symptoms can persist for months. Withdrawal from stimulants is characterized by feelings of unhappiness in tandem with some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Jitteriness
  • Dehydration
  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Hallucinations or paranoia
  • Noticeable weight loss and a gaunt physical appearance
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Increased appetite
  • Impaired memory
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed movement
  • Nightmares

Although these symptoms tend to subside after the first week, cravings may actually become more intense near day 10. After day 18, the worst is usually over.

Getting Help for Teenagers Struggling with Cocaine Addiction

Substance abuse and addiction have wide-ranging effects on friends, family and just about anyone involved in the life of the person with an addiction. Cocaine addiction treatment can take many different forms, but one thing is always the same: The support of friends and family is invaluable in recovery.

One of the treatment models you can consider for your loved one is an outpatient treatment model. This can be ideal for teenagers who are at the early stages of their addiction because while it incorporates the same behavioral therapies that make inpatient treatment successful for people, the outpatient model allows people to return home afterward and continue their recovery while resuming normal life. Outpatient rehab relies primarily on cognitive behavioral therapy to help people recognize situations that trigger drug use and control their impulses.

Beating an addiction is not just a matter of choice. Addressing mental and physiological addiction requires time and energy, and the first step is assessment and admitting there is a problem. There is no doubt that rehab can place a large burden on the family of the addict, but it is just the first step on the road to recovery for everyone involved. For more information about support groups in your area, take the time to review the support resources in the Bellevue area all across Washington State.

2020-01-30T16:48:31+00:00April 20th, 2018|2 Comments


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    • Evergreen Staff June 3, 2019 at 5:13 pm - Reply

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