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What is cocaine?

Cocaine is one of the oldest known drugs. In the early 19th century, this stimulant was used as an ingredient for many types of tonics prescribed to treat a variety of illnesses. However, the source of cocaine—coca leaves—has been ingested for thousands of years in mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia where the coca bush is found. Though it can be prescribed by physicians today as a local anesthetic, cocaine is a commonly abused drug and was very popular in the '80s and '90s.

Cocaine comes in two chemical forms: hydrochloride salts (the powdered form) and "crack" (a smokable "freebase" form produced through a reaction with an alkaline substance such as baking soda). The powdered form can be injected into a vein after it's dissolved in water, or inhaled. When sold by drug dealers, the powdered form of cocaine is often diluted with sugar, starch or other substances. The freebase form of cocaine can be smoked.

Cocaine stimulates the nervous system, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to increase and your blood vessels to constrict, which is why abusers often suffer heart attacks and strokes. The initial effects of cocaine use are increased alertness, energy, self-confidence and loss of appetite. However, as these effects wear off, the user is left feeling depressed, fatigued, jumpy, fearful and anxious.

Crack is the slang name for the highly potent form of freebase cocaine processed from powdered hydrochloride into a substance that can be smoked. Crack looks like white chunks, rocks or chips and "cracks" when it is smoked. Crack is less expensive to produce and buy than cocaine. It is typically smoked in a pipe, and users inhale the fumes.

The effects of crack are similar to other forms of cocaine, only more intense and more immediate. Users seem to become addicted to it more quickly than to other forms of cocaine.

This content originally appeared on HealthyWomen.org.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.