What Crack Cocaine Does To Your Body, According To Science

According to the Addiction Center, crack cocaine — a highly addictive and potent powdered form of cocaine — is shockingly prevalent in the United States, with nearly half of all high school seniors reporting it "fairly" or "very" easy to get. Meanwhile, some 1.4 million Americans over age 12 reported a cocaine use disorder in the past year, according to 2021 data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Contributing to crack cocaine's addictive properties — among many other negative physical, emotional, and psychological consequences — the resulting high from the substance can rewire the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. These regions primarily operate via the transmission of dopamine, and crack cocaine can restructure such pathways from the very first time it's tried. In part, this is also why crack cocaine can have such devastating effects on long-term health. Here's a more in-depth account of the effects of this drug on the human body.

Initial reactions to crack cocaine can be severe

Illicit substances like crack cocaine vary in their consistency, so no two crack users react the same, but from the outset, there are a number of serious potential physical side effects from the drug. Some are fatal, and most worsen with prolonged use. Those range from aggression, nausea, and loss of appetite, to seizures, stroke, and heart failure.

Emotionally, crack cocaine use can lead to an almost immediate and constant craving for more, as well as anxiety and restlessness. Among the most serious side effects of crack cocaine use is something called "coke bugs," or the hallucination that there are bugs or some type of living creatures under the user's skin — leading some to pick, dig, or cut at themselves for relief, according to Archstone Behavioral Health.

Coke bugs, or formication, are just one of many profound psychological side effects of prolonged crack cocaine use, which can include paranoia, hallucinations, and something called cocaine psychosis, which affects nearly 90% of all cocaine users, according to The Recovery Village.

Some researchers theorize that too much dopamine leads to cocaine psychosis

There are several leading theories why prolonged use of crack cocaine can lead to psychosis, such as the negative effects of massive amounts of dopamine on the brain, or possibly the drug's effect on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance found in the brain of those experiencing psychotic episodes. More research is needed to fully understand the connection between stimulants like crack cocaine and mental health, though.

Crack cocaine users who start young are more prone to cocaine psychosis, according to a study published in Actas Españolas de Psiquiatría. The method by which it's consumed and how much is taken, whether the drug is ingested with other substances known to have effects on mental well-being, and any underlying mental health issues in a user may also play a part in the development of cocaine psychosis. Other long-time negative consequences of crack cocaine use include liver and lung damage, kidney failure, and death. 

According to The New York Times, President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, recounted his crack cocaine addiction in his 2021 memoir "Beautiful Things" and the effect it had on his life, including a drug-induced affair with his brother's widowed wife. In response to critics of his son, President Biden has said, "My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's fixed it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of it. I'm proud of my son."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).