How Crack Cocaine Works

Side Effects of Crack Use

While crack is creating a feeling of exhilaration in the user, it is also leaving a number of significant and potentially dangerous effects on the body. People who take it even a few times are at increased risk for heart attack, stroke, respiratory problems and severe mental disorders.

As crack moves through the bloodstream, it first leaves the user feeling energized, more alert and more sensitive to sight, sound and touch. His heart rate increases, his pupils dilate and his blood pressure and temperature rise. The user may then start to feel restless, anxious and/or irritable. In large amounts, crack can make a person extremely aggressive, paranoid and/or delusional [source: American Addiction Centers].


Because of its effects on the heart rate and breathing, crack can cause a heart attack, respiratory failure, strokes or seizures. It can also affect the digestive tract, causing nausea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite.

If crack is taken with alcohol, the two substances can combine in the liver to produce a chemical called cocaethylene. This is a toxic and potentially fatal substance that produces a more intense high than crack alone but also raises heart rate and blood pressure more than crack alone, leading to potentially deadly results [source: Project Know].

In the mid-1980s, when crack was a burgeoning public health issue, a related problem emerged: the phenomenon of the so-called "crack baby." In 1985, Dr. Ira Chasnoff wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that babies who were exposed to crack in the womb wound up with permanent cognitive impairment Soon, images of "crack babies" were everywhere in the media. They became symbolic of the war against drugs [source: UPI].

Since then, many researchers have challenged the idea of the crack baby. A 2004 study by the Society for Research in Child Development found that prenatal cocaine exposure did not affect a child's development by age 2, and it suggested that the harmful effects previously found in cocaine-exposed babies may actually have had more to do with post-natal care than with exposure to the drug in the womb. The fears of a generation of "crack babies" who would be permanently learning-disabled appear to have been overblown. Scientists have found that long-term effects of exposure to crack on children's brain development have been relatively small, about as bad as tobacco but less severe than alcohol [source: Okie].

Nevertheless, doctors agree that crack is absolutely unsafe to take during pregnancy. Babies who are exposed to crack in the uterus are often born prematurely and tend to be smaller than other babies. Crack exposure can still contribute to developmental and cognitive delays [source: National Institutes of Health].