I am an occasional cocaine user. Will i become addicted and am I putting my health at risk?

Niamh Houston

I am in my thirties and use cocaine occasionally. Is it addictive?

It can be. Not everyone who uses cocaine becomes addicted, but if they do, it can be one of the hardest drug habits to break. Smoking crack is the most addictive, but any method -- snorting, smoking or injecting -- can lead to addiction. Getting and taking cocaine can take over your life and lead to medical, psychological, employment and social problems. It is not possible to predict who is at risk of addiction or who is not. Cocaine addiction can be a gradual process, it is not difficult for occasional or recreational use to descend into a constant habit. Cocaine causes people to 'crash' when they stop using it. This can lead to rapid mood swings from feeling high to panic or distress which can bring powerful cravings for more of the drug.

It's usually when I'm having a drink that I take cocaine. Does alcohol worsen its effect?

Yes, cocaine and alcohol taken together results in the liver producing a substance -- coca ethylene -- that increases cocaine's potential to cause heart strain and death.

Smoking cocaine can damage the lungs and cause 'crack lung', symptoms include chest pains, breathing problems, and high temperatures. Crack lung can be fatal.

How long do the effects from cocaine last?

Cocaine can affect the heart within 18 hours of use, but its effects can be seen up to four days later.

Can cocaine damage your heart? I had chest pains last week and I'm concerned about heart disease? Taking cocaine affects the heart in a number of ways. Firstly it causes the blood vessels to thicken and constrict, reducing the flow of oxygen to the heart. At the same time cocaine causes the heart muscle to work harder, raising your blood pressure and heart rate. These conditions can cause a heart attack, sudden death or stroke, even in healthy people.

Recent reports have indicated that cocaine users have hearts which appear to be twice the age of non-users. Chest pain, palpitations, trouble breathing, nausea and dizziness are some of the symptoms of heart disease. If you develop any such symptoms, you need an urgent medical assessment. Doctors need to know when cocaine is involved as it changes the treatment needed. Medication can be given to reduce cocaine's stimulation and its heart-damaging effects.

The good news is that if you stop using cocaine you are less likely to experience further heart problems related to the drug.

For more information see www.drugs.ie and www.rutlandcentre.ie