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Cocaine vs. Meth: Comparing Their Effects and Long-Term Damages

Cocaine and methamphetamines (meth) are both classified as stimulants based on the way in which they affect the body. They reportedly increase alertness and talkativeness as well as provide intense feelings of exhilaration and euphoria.

The host of dangerous side effects that accompany their use are also very similar, and prolonged use and abuse quickly take their toll and the user’s body and mind. However, the effects of meth, when compared to cocaine, are more neurologically devastating and irreversible.

As of 2014, approximately 1.5 million Americans were dependent on cocaine, while roughly 570,000 were using meth. In the same year, cocaine was responsible for nearly 6,000 overdose deaths, with meth not far behind at just under 4,000. While these numbers may not be on the same crisis-levels of the current opioid epidemic, they are still highly troubling.

Understanding how cocaine and meth work, as well as the dangers and long-term effects of both substances, can help prevent overdose deaths, maybe even be able to stop an addiction before it starts.

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A Tale of Two Stimulants

Both cocaine and meth do have a limited medical use. Cocaine, the only known drug that possesses both the properties of a stimulant and anesthetic, can be used for local anesthesia in some surgical procedures. Meth has extremely restricted medical use in treating ADHD and narcolepsy.

The most basic difference between cocaine and meth is that cocaine is plant-based, derived from the South American coca plant, while meth is a man-made synthetic, almost akin to a mad science project. Meth can be manufactured from all kinds of different ingredients, including:

  • Over-the-counter cold and allergy medications
  • Battery acid
  • Ammonia
  • Lye
  • Drain cleaner
  • Gasoline additives
  • Acetone
  • Cat litter

Cocaine, often referred to as the “caviar of street drugs,” has the association of wealth attached to it, with TV shows frequently depicting people like celebrities, models, and executive-types using it. Meth, on the other hand, has been called “the poor man’s cocaine,” and is often portrayed as the drug of choice for economically depressed areas.

Cocaine vs. Meth: How Do They Work?


Since they are both stimulants, cocaine and meth produce the same kind of effects by altering the user’s levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure centers, although they do it in slightly different ways. Cocaine prolongs dopamine actions, which means that it blocks the brain from reabsorbing dopamine, letting it build up in the synapse to create an increased sense of energy and extremely elevated mood. Meth also blocks the reuptake of dopamine, but it also increases the release of dopamine on top of that, essentially releasing a flood of dopamine to the synapse, which can have a toxic effect.

To get an idea of just how much dopamine a dose of meth releases, and by extension, what makes it so immediately and dangerously addictive, let’s look at how other substances, including cocaine, stack up in comparison:

  • Both alcohol and nicotine cause dopamine levels to jump from around 100 units to 200 units.
  • Cocaine produces a significantly higher release of dopamine, raising the levels from 100 units to about 350 units.
  • Meth takes users from the baseline of 100 units to roughly 1,250 units, more than 12 times that of alcohol and nicotine.

The high from meth also lasts markedly longer than cocaine. While it takes about an hour for 50 percent of cocaine to be removed from your system, it takes 12 hours for 50 percent of meth to leave your body. The side effects that can occur while taking cocaine and meth do overlap quite a bit and include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of appetite

Their withdrawal symptoms are also similar and typically manifest as:

  • Depression and a general inability to feel pleasure
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Aches and pains
  • Chills
  • Tremors

These withdrawal symptoms are part of what makes detoxing from cocaine, and more so meth, an extremely uncomfortable and painful process. Still, the deleterious and potentially permanent effects of prolonged use far outweigh the discomfort of going through detoxification.

Damage That Can’t Be Undone

Long-term use of cocaine can lead to prolonged bouts of confusion and paranoia, along with seizures and suicide ideation. Chronic use can also damage the cardiovascular, respiratory, and central nervous systems, which can contribute to chest pains and heart palpitations. Using cocaine for many years has also been linked to the development of movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Other health risks cocaine can cause depend on how it enters the body. A perpetually inflamed and runny nose is the mildest effect of regularly snorting cocaine. If snorted chronically, it can lead to hoarseness, problems swallowing, nosebleeds, a loss of sense of smell and can even create a hole in your septum that will cause your nasal cavities to collapse. Regularly injecting cocaine instead creates puncture marks or “tracks” and comes with the risk of contracting HIV and Hepatitis C.

The long-term effects of meth use are even more chilling. Chronic use produces prolonged feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and aggression, as well as insomnia, delusions, visual and auditory hallucinations, and violent episodes. Then there are the physical effects, which include skin sores, weight loss, and severe dental problems, often known as “meth mouth.” Several components contribute to meth mouth, like poor nutrition, neglected dental hygiene, chronic dry mouth, and teeth-grinding, which can be a physical side effect of abuse.

The worst damage prolonged abuse of meth can cause is to the brain, and it is often impossible to reverse. Meth changes the brain in fundamental ways, decreasing the number of neurons in the central nervous system. The central nervous system is extremely limited in its ability to create new, replacement neurons, which is what makes the damage to the brain permanent, affecting basic cognitive functions such as:

  • Certain aspects of attention and movement
  • The ability to visualize objects in space and form nonverbal memories
  • The ability to not only remember but also learn new information
  • Problem-solving and the inhibition of potentially damaging behaviors

When the brain has become so thoroughly damaged from the effects of meth, in most cases, there can be no going back.

Get On the Road to Sobriety with Ocean Breeze Recovery Center

Cocaine and meth share many of the same traits, but the most important one of all is the harmful and potentially deadly impact they can have on your health, your brain, and your life. An addiction to these stimulants can feel impossible to overcome, but there is always hope. At Ocean Breeze Recovery Center, we are ready to provide you or a loved one with the expert care and support you need. Our admissions professionals are available 24/7, so all you have to do is call us at (866) 563-0736 or contact us online.


Stephanie T.

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