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Crack Addiction & Abuse: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Crack cocaine decimated communities all across the United States in the mid-1980s. Reports of drug use were in nightly news reports, true-crime television shows, and newspapers. While we'd like to believe no one uses crack cocaine anymore, since we all know how dangerous it is, experts don't agree.

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In 2021, about 527,000 Americans admitted to past-month use of crack cocaine. Since this drug isn’t available in prescription form, people who used the drug bought it from dealers. And it’s possible that some of them didn’t realize how dangerous the drug is.

Two of the most frequent consequences of cocaine abuse are also the most serious — heart attack and stroke. Cocaine is very hard on the cardiovascular system, and while heart problems can happen during an overdose, even casual users can experience these problems. 

Keep reading to find out why people abuse crack cocaine and how an addiction is treated. 

What Is Crack Cocaine?

Crack cocaine is a man-made product that almost anyone can make. In fact, experts say crack got so popular in the 1980s because it was inexpensive to make — and cheaper for users to buy — than other types of drugs. 

Crack is made of the following three ingredients:

  • Powdered cocaine
  • Ammonia or baking soda 
  • Water 

Dealers mix all ingredients and boil the fluid until a solid substance appears. That solid is removed and cracked into tiny bits ready for sale. Users call the substance crack because it makes a snapping sound when heated and smoked. 

By the late 1990s, experts say crack was declining in most of the country. Two sites they examined regularly had no signs of crack use. But even so, crack remains appealing because it is so easy to make and use — and the high it delivers is very powerful. 

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Crack Addiction & Abuse?

Crack is a powerful stimulant medication, capable of delivering a high within seconds of smoking. But intoxication doesn’t last for long. Episodes of manic energy followed by crushing lows characterizes crack abuse. Frequent episodes characterize addition.

Other known symptoms of crack addiction include the following:

  • Weight loss 
  • Poor grooming and hygiene habits
  • Constant presence of drug paraphernalia, like pipes and matches
  • Poor performance at work or school 
  • Complaints of chest pain 

Some people who use crack experience episodes of rage, and if they use the drug often, that anger can seem like a personality change. 

While crack is relatively inexpensive, it’s hard to hold down a job while you’re intoxicated. And people with a regular habit must always buy more drugs. Financial difficulties are common among people with a crack habit, and some steal from friends, family, or neighbors to make ends meet. 

Crack is also illegal throughout the United States, and people can face law enforcement action for mere possession of the drug or the tools needed to use it. Frequent incarceration is common among people addicted to crack. 

The Impact of Crack Abuse

Few people start using drugs because they want to hurt their bodies or minds. But crack abuse comes with very serious physical and mental health problems. 

Physical Changes

Cocaine can be devastating for a user’s physical health. Known health problems associated with the drug include the following:

  • Constricted blood vessels 
  • Fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lung trauma
  • Bleeding

Your cardiovascular system feeds every part of your body with oxygen-rich blood. When it’s not working properly, tissues can die. 

Some people who use crack cocaine feel cardiovascular damage as it happens. They may feel short of breath when exerting their bodies, and they may have regular chest pain. But others have no idea that their habit is harming their hearts until they have massive heart attacks and end up in the emergency room. 

Since crack is heated and smoked, it enters the body through the lungs. Crack additives aren’t meant for inhalation, and regular use can lead to significant damage. Crack users may cough regularly, and they may fight recurring lung and tracheal infections. 

Mental Health Changes

Crack cocaine can cause paranoia and aggression. Since people with crack addiction work very hard to stay high all of the time, they may feel angry and violent almost all of the time too. To outsiders, this can look like a personality change. 

When cocaine wears off, chemicals in the brain dip, and a deep depression sets in. People may seem extremely tired or sad for long stretches, and they may stay in bed to recover. 

The final mental health change associated with crack cocaine is addiction. While any type of cocaine can cause addiction, researchers say this issue develops quicker in people who smoke the drug (rather than snorting it). People addicted to crack put the drug at the center of their lives, focusing all of their energy on getting, using, and recovering from the drug. 

Can a Crack Habit Cause Withdrawal?

When people think about drug withdrawal, they’re often referring to opioids. These drugs cause flu-like symptoms when people quit abruptly. Crack doesn’t cause a similar syndrome, but it can cause withdrawal. 

Crack causes brain cells to release massive doses of neurotransmitters, and in time, brain cells won’t produce these chemicals without the drug. A deep depression can appear as the brain is deprived of feel-good chemicals like dopamine. 

Withdrawal from the drug can also cause deep-seated cravings. These feelings are more intense than those you might experience for food cravings. Drug cravings can feel like an overwhelming itch that’s impossible to scratch. They can keep people from focusing on anything, including their recovery.

Researchers say this type of neuropsychiatric symptom can last for a long time, and it can complicate recovery. People may revert to crack use to fix their low moods, and the more frequently they relapse, the more they may believe that they’ll never be able to manage the addiction for good. 

Can You Overdose on Crack?

People who abuse cocaine must take bigger and bigger doses to experience the intoxication symptoms they expect. Some feel that they are always chasing the strength of their first high. In time, they can take too much and overdose.

It’s impossible to say how much cocaine can cause an overdose in everyone. Doses are deeply personal, and people with a long-standing habit can tolerate more than a novice might. 

But people who take too much can put too much stress on their cardiovascular system and experience strokes or heart attacks. These episodes can be fatal. In fact, half of all drug overdose deaths in New York City involve either crack or powdered cocaine. 

No medication can reverse a crack overdose immediately. But doctors can use medications, fluids, and monitoring to help their patients to recover from an overdose. 

And ongoing treatment can help these people to repair their hearts and live healthy lives. The sooner you get treatment for crack addiction, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to reverse much of the damage abuse of the drug has done to your body and brain. 

Treatment Options for Crack Addiction 

While it’s tough for people with a crack addiction to quit independently, treatment programs can help. 

Some people benefit from the prescription medication disulfiram. This medication was developed to help people recover from alcohol use disorder, but research suggests that it can target key enzymes that perpetuate drug cravings. People who use this medication may be able to resist temptation when they’re triggered to use drugs. 

Behavioral treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be very effective for people addicted to crack. This form of therapy can help people understand their drug use triggers, and they can develop new methods for handling them without reverting to drugs. 

Support group meetings may also be helpful for some people. These peer-lead meetings allow people addicted to crack to meet others just like them, and they can share tools and techniques that help commit to sobriety. 

Some people who are introduced to these meetings in a treatment program stick with them for the rest of life. They can serve as another tool in your toolbox as you embrace lifelong recovery.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated December 16, 2023
Resources
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  3. Crack Cocaine Fast Facts. National Drug Intelligence Center.
  4. Crack's Decline: Some Surprises Across U.S. Cities. (July 1997). U.S. Department of Justice.
  5. Crack Cocaine Fast Facts. National Drug Intelligence Center.
  6. Cocaine Toxicity. (October 2022). StatPearls.
  7. Cocaine and Crack Poster. NYC Health.
  8. How Is Cocaine Addiction Treated? (May 2016). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  9. Exploring Stages of Recovery From Crack Cocaine Addiction. (2019). Walden University.
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