What is cocaine?
Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. Although health care providers can use it for valid medical purposes, such as local anesthesia for some surgeries, recreational cocaine use is illegal. As a street drug, cocaine looks like a fine, white, crystal powder. Street dealers often mix it with things like cornstarch, talcum powder, or flour to increase profits. They may also mix it with other drugs such as the stimulant amphetamine, or synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. Adding synthetic opioids to cocaine is especially risky when people using cocaine don’t realize it contains this dangerous additive. Increasing numbers of overdose deaths among cocaine users might be related to this tampered cocaine.
Popular nicknames for cocaine include:
How do people use cocaine?
People snort cocaine powder through the nose, or they rub it into their gums. Others dissolve the powder and inject it into the bloodstream. Some people inject a combination of cocaine and heroin, called a Speedball. Another popular method of use is to smoke cocaine that has been processed to make a rock crystal (also called “freebase cocaine”). The crystal is heated to produce vapors that are inhaled into the lungs. This form of cocaine is called Crack, which refers to the crackling sound of the rock as it’s heated. Some people also smoke Crack by sprinkling it on marijuana or tobacco and smoke it like a cigarette.
People who use cocaine often take it in binges—taking the drug repeatedly within a short time, at increasingly higher doses—to maintain their high.
How does cocaine affect the brain?
Cocaine increases levels of the natural chemical messenger dopamine in brain circuits related to the control of movement and reward. Normally, dopamine recycles back into the cell that released it, shutting off the signal between nerve cells. However, cocaine prevents dopamine from being recycled, causing large amounts to build up in the space between two nerve cells, stopping their normal communication. This flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit strongly reinforces drug-taking behaviors, because the reward circuit eventually adapts to the excess of dopamine caused by cocaine, and becomes less sensitive to it. As a result, people take stronger and more frequent doses in an attempt to feel the same high and to obtain relief from withdrawal.
How Long Does Cocaine Stay In Your System?
Drug use estimates point to a worrying trend: The number of cocaine users has been climbing steadily over the last decade. Even more concerning, overdose deaths involving cocaine are rising at unprecedented rates. Statistical data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the number of cocaine-related overdose deaths doubled from roughly 6,000 in 2014 to over 11,000 in 2016. The amount of time cocaine stays in your system is dependent on how it’s consumed — snorted or smoked — and if use is heavy or chronic.
Immediately after taking cocaine, it’s broken down into metabolites by enzymes in the blood and liver—before being excreted in the urine.
Metabolites are substances that your body creates as it breaks down the drug. The main metabolites that are detectable in urine are benzoylecgonine and ecgonine methyl ester. The former can be detected in urine for up to 4 days—depending on the dose, metabolism rate, and frequency of usage.
PS: Urine drug tests often test for benzoylecgonine since it’s found in higher concentrations than the actual cocaine.
Cocaine Drug Test: How Hair, Blood, Urine, and Saliva Are Used to Detect Cocaine
How long does cocaine stay in your urine? The most common cocaine drug test is a urine test, although the drug can be detected in hair, saliva, and blood as well.
The body breaks down cocaine rapidly, with the substance having a half-life of only around six hours.
A half-life means that half of the drug will be excreted in six hours. Half of the remainder will be eliminated in the following six hours, and so on.
Using this formula, a user’s urine will test positive for cocaine for about a day. However, most laboratories test the blood not only for the presence of cocaine but for its metabolites as well.
As highlighted earlier benzoylecgonine—the primary cocaine metabolite—can extend the detection time frame to four days after the last known usage of the drug due to a longer half-life.
Cocaine can also be detected in saliva, blood, and hair:
- Urine– 1 to 4 days
- Blood– up to 1 day
- Saliva– 1 to 2 days
- Hair – up to 90 days
Keep in mind that these are estimates—and the actual detection times are subject to several factors discussed later in this article.
Quest Diagnostics—one of the country’s most well-known diagnostic labs—released a report on cocaine in the workforce in 2017. The report noted that the American workforce tested positive for cocaine at a rate that is the highest it’s been in seven years, with a total of 0.28 percent of employees testing positive.
Detection Limits — How Long Cocaine Stays in the Body
What affects how long coke stays in the system? When testing for drug use, many factors determine how long cocaine stays in your urine, blood, and saliva.
Factors that impact detection include:
- Half-life: Whereas cocaine has a half-life of 6 hours, its primary metabolite (benzoylecgonine) has a half-life of roughly 12 hours.
- Rate of metabolism
- Route of excretion (sweat, urine, etc.)
- Frequency, amount, and administration route: Outside factors, such as the drug’s level of purity and length of use, also affect residual amounts in the body. Underscoring this, a Johns Hopkins study that dosed men with increasing amounts of cocaine over a period of time found that the longer they took the drug, the less effective their bodies were at eliminating it.
- The sensitivity of the test itself
- Users’ fluid intake: Obviously, a person who drinks a lot of fluid can remove cocaine from his or her urine faster than a person who is not. But keep in mind that chugging a gallon of water does not necessarily improve your odds of passing a drug test.
- Overall health: For example, individuals with liver disorders may test positive longer, since the liver is the primary organ by which cocaine is metabolized.
- Diet, weight, and gender: Benzoylecgonine can be stored in fatty tissue—meaning that people with higher body fat accumulate more cocaine.
Are Cocaine Drug Tests Common?
As an increasingly urgent public health concern, and one of the most abused illicit drugs, cocaine screening is often included in basic testing procedures.
The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA) notes that employers and other parties favor the 5-panel test—which includes Cocaine, PCP, Marijuana, Opiates, and Amphetamines.
Cocaine Drug Test Accuracy– Can Cocaine Drug Tests Show a False Positive?
Tests for cocaine are generally reliable, although there are occasional false positives. Most often, these occur with hair testing, which has been under scrutiny in recent years.
In 2016, hair testing was struck down as unreliable by the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission board that oversaw the wrongful termination case of six police officers whose hair tested positive for the drug. The commission argued that hair testing has no national standards and a positive result may be returned from accidental or environmental exposure to cocaine.
Such accidental exposure is not unusual — in 2017, CNN reported that over 80 percent of all cash contains traces of cocaine. According to a case study highlighted in a 2015 article appearing in Pain Medicine, a false positive following a cocaine screening impacted the patient’s pain therapy. This brought into question the reliability and effectiveness of screening tests. In the case of a suspected false-positive cocaine test, it’s important to follow up with the test issuer. You may request a different type of test to verify the results.
Effects of Cocaine
Despite the negative perceptions associated with cocaine, the stimulant has some medicinal properties. It’s sometimes legally used as a local anesthetic in surgical settings.
Regardless of its medical benefits, cocaine is illegal for recreational use and it’s classified as a Schedule II Controlled Substance meaning it’s deemed to be addictive with a high potential of abuse.
As a recreational drug, people typically use cocaine for its euphoric psychological effects. This may include increased energy, inflated confidence, increased alertness feeling more social, and intense happiness.
However, it can also produce unpleasant physical and psychological effects such as anxiety, irritability, paranoia, insomnia, dizziness, headache, diarrhea, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, muscle twitches, irregular heartbeat, decreased appetite, restlessness, and nausea, among others.
Prolonged use or taking a high concentration of cocaine, may lead to long-term and fatal consequences. These include:
- Cardiovascular problems: According to a study published in the Journal of Circulation, cocaine users are 23 times more likely to suffer from a heart attack than those who don’t.
- Kidney damage
- Difficulty breathing
- Death: Approximately 14,000 people lost their lives due to cocaine overdose in 2017.
- Mental illnesses
Please note that cocaine overdoses are sometimes unexpected—and they can occur on the first use. The risk is even greater when cocaine is mixed with alcohol or other drugs.
Dangers of Mixing Cocaine and Alcohol
According to an article by a group of researchers affiliated with Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, mixing cocaine and alcohol may result in a number of health risks:
- The combination of alcohol and cocaine produces a metabolite (cocaethylene)—which may increase the toxicity of the substances.
- Mixing the two drugs may increase the user’s heart rate.
- Alcohol can increase the level of cocaine in the blood by up to 30%.
- People who combine the two and drive have a higher risk of accidents due to greater impairment of psychomotor performance and learning deficits.
How long does cocaine stay in the system if mixed with alcohol? Is coke eliminated faster or slower? According to several studies, the metabolite produced from the combination is metabolized slower than cocaine alone.
In an animal study published in the Journal of Drug Metabolism and Disposition, the authors found that the repeated use of alcohol prolonged the rate of eliminating cocaine in rats.
Similarly, the findings of another 2003 study suggested that “Both cocaine and cocaethylene clearances were decreased about 20% when given with ethanol.”
Cocaine Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Much like other abusive and risky drugs, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are strongly advised against using cocaine. The stimulant has been shown to cross into both the placenta and breast milk—potentially endangering the child.
Some scientific studies note that cocaine use during pregnancy increases the risk of cognitive-behavioral issues in the future, smaller head circumference and body length, and low birth weight.
In the case of breastfeeding, research suggests that a mother who happens to use cocaine (single occasion) should not breastfeed for at least 24 hours—or up to 3 months if you were a frequent user. However, always consult a doctor for your safety and that of the baby.
Do You Have a Cocaine Addiction Problem?
Cocaine is a highly addictive substance. Frequent doses of the drug change how dopamine (a chemical that affects how we experience pleasure) is released in the brain.
However, the euphoric effects are short-lived and wear off relatively fast. This means that users need to partake more frequently to achieve the desired effects—hence building a tolerance along the way.
Once your brain builds a tolerance, you’ll need higher doses of cocaine to feel the same high as before. This quickly leads to dependence. Here are some questions to help determine if you’re addicted to cocaine:
- Do you know that your cocaine habits are harmful, but you still take them?
- Do you spend a significant amount of time thinking about your next high?
- Are you prioritizing cocaine over your friends and family?
- Does the thought of reducing or stopping your cocaine usage habits make you feel depressed, restless, or agitated?
- Are you gradually taking higher doses to maintain the same level of high?