Crack Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, and Implications

woman at her window

Throughout 16 months of active addiction and my nearly two decades of sobriety, I’ve been able to meet people who had very diverse drugs of choice. I once met a woman who swore that smoking gas station K2 (spice) and huffing a can of duster made her feel “magical.” During that time, I only came across two people who said their drug of choice was crack cocaine. One of them was a young man named Mark who had recently realized he could cook and sell enough crack to support his cocaine addiction. And his business plan was working…until he tried crack for the first time and quickly became hooked. 

Mark always said the initial rush from smoking crack offered the most appeal to him. It also made him more social in public, increased his sexual pleasures, and allowed him to drink Jack Daniels all night long without passing out. But crack’s “appeal” quickly wore off. Every time he went on a binge, Mark would find himself obsessing about scoring more crack immediately after the very first hit. But it was the depression and bouts of paranoia he experienced during the comedown that eventually led Mark to commit suicide. 

A Crack Cocaine History Lesson

regretting decisionsCocaine has a long history in American culture, from the early days of “Coca” Cola giving its extra zip with a little bit of cocaine to the cocaine boom of the 1970s and 80s. Cocaine use was glamorized and became trendy, even being celebrated in some music of the era. Although cocaine use has been on the decline in the last decade, it still remains a massive public health problem.1 And crack cocaine, which is a close relative of cocaine, addiction makes up a  large part of that problem. 

Cocaine comes from the leaves of the Coca bush, which is mostly cultivated in South America.2 Crack cocaine is derived directly from this powder cocaine by preparing it with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Crack induces similar effects to cocaine use, but it is more intense, onsets more quickly, and fades more quickly. Crack also has a higher addictive potential than cocaine.2

Fast Facts About Crack 

  • Crack emerged as a popular drug of abuse in the mid-1980s.9 It produces an immediate high, and since it’s so easy and cheap to produce,  it’s readily available and affordable.
  • Crack is produced by dissolving powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (aka: baking soda). It’s boiled until a solid substance forms. Once solid, the crack is removed from the liquid, dried, and broken into pieces – or crack rocks –  to be sold and smoked.9
  • Crack rocks are white (or off-white) and vary in both size and shape.
  • Crack is almost always smoked. Smoking crack delivers large amounts of the drug straight to the lungs, which produces an immediate and intense euphoric high.9
  • Due to its strength, there’s a high risk of overdose or fatal overdose when using crack. Even someone using the drug for the first time can overdose.
  • Crack addiction creates very strong cravings for more of the drug, along with a desperate desire to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms. All things considered, crack is a drug that is very hard to quit once addicted.

Why is Crack So Addictive?

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant. It increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which leads to a euphoric high.3 Dopamine is an essential part of your brain’s natural reward system, but crack can short circuit this system. It brings on feelings of alertness, happiness, and energy…but it can also cause paranoia, irritability, and sometimes violent behaviors.3 

Although powder and crack cocaine both have fast onsets, the effects of crack are felt much faster. In fact, the effects can be felt eight seconds after inhalation and the high lasts approximately 10 minutes.2

Powder cocaine, on the other hand, takes three to five minutes to kick in, with the high lasting about 15- 20 minutes.8

What Are the Signs of Crack Abuse?

couple in a fightSince crack is such a short acting drug, you’ll often see people taking increasingly frequent smoke breaks every 5-10 minutes.8 And the mental obsession associated with crack addiction can become so severe that it prevents people from holding a conversation with you; they are too obsessed with getting their next hit. Simply put, signs like these are hard to hide. 

Typical Signs of Crack Use:8

  • Exhibiting exaggerated confidence and hyperactivity.
  • Dilated pupils
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Uncharacteristically irresponsible
  • Burned or cracked lips or fingers
  • Crack paraphernalia (glass pipe with stem, lighter, etc.)

Crack cocaine is often used with other substances like heroin or alcohol. In doing so, they are combining a stimulant with a depressant, something that’s known as “speedballing.”2 This causes powerful, dangerous, unpredictable, and even deadly reactions.

What Kind of Damage Does Crack Do to Your Body?

Cocaine is often referred to as the “perfect heart-attack drug” because it puts you at risk with every use.  Crack and stimulant use in general, can inflict serious bodily damage, including:5,6,7

  • Heart damage
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Heart attacks or stroke
  • Infectious diseases
  • Malnourishment
  • Neurological disorders like Parkinson’s Disease

Treatment for Crack Addiction

Finding a drug rehab that specializes in the treatment of crack addiction improves the chances of successful recovery by leaps and bounds. There are even some rehab centers that exclusively focus on helping for helping people overcome a dependency on crack cocaine.

Detox

For most individuals, the acute phase of crack cocaine withdrawal lasts 3- 7 days, but the post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS)  can last for several weeks or several months. Symptom duration ultimately depends on how often crack was abused, how long the addiction has ben present, and the method of use.

Although there are currently no approved medications to treat crack addiction or withdrawal, experts are testing drugs to help with cravings and withdrawal. Buspirone, which is an anti-anxiety medication, looks like it’s showing signs of success in controlling the anxiety caused by crack withdrawal.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab programs offer on of the best pathways to recovery for those addicted to stimulants like cocaine and crack. While their plans of care might be different, most crack addiction treatment programs offer cognitive behavioral therapy, peer support groups, and forms of therapy. Rehab programs usually last 30-90 days, but can last longer when needed.

By definition, addiction causes people to do careless, dangerous, confusing, and disturbing things in the name of chasing a high. And while we’re chasing, we constantly  put our physical and mental wellbeing through the wringer. Let’s be honest, active addiction is a lifestyle that would bring even the strongest non-addicted person to their knees. But somewhere along the way, that chaotic and unhealthy lifestyle becomes normal. However, crack addiction does not have to ruin your life. Treatment is available, and recovery is possible.

References:
  1. National Public Radio (2013). How Americans said no to cocaine after years-long addiction.
  2. Publishers Group (2011). Streetdrugs. Long Lake, MN: Publishers Group
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016). What is cocaine?
  4. Batniji, R.K. & Meyers, A.D. (2016). Septal perforation – medical aspects clinical presentation.
  5. Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Effects of crack cocaine.
  6. American Heart Association (2015). Illegal drugs and heart disease.
  7. Marcias, J., Palacios, R.B., Claro, E., Vargas, J., Vergara, S., … Mira, J. A. (2008). High prevalence of Hepatitis C virus infection among noninjecting drug users: Association with sharing the inhalation implements of crack. Liver International, 28 (6), 781-786.
  8. Morton, W. A. (1999). Cocaine and Psychiatric Symptoms. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry1(4), 109–113. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181074/
  9. Grogger, J., & Willis, M. (2000). The Emergence of Crack Cocaine and the Rise in Urban Crime Rates. The Review of Economics and Statistics82(4), 519–529. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2646648
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