Cocaine and ADHD: everything you need to know

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder. People with ADHD typically exhibit symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These people may have low levels of dopamine in the brain, which makes it harder to complete tasks.

ADHD is common in the United States. In 2019, almost 9% children between the ages of 3 and 17 had been diagnosed with the disease. Although some children overcome ADHD, it affects about 2.5% of adults.

To research identified a strong association between ADHD and substance use disorders, including cocaine use. Cocaine is a stimulant subject to abuse and dependence. Along with other effects, it can improve concentration, which makes it potentially appealing to someone with ADHD. However, cocaine also has potential risks, including serious side effects such as heart attack, stroke, and seizures.

This article examines the link between cocaine use and ADHD and the risks associated with drug use.

Because cocaine is a stimulant drug, it can cause feelings of increased energy and euphoria in people without ADHD.

However, in people with ADHD, cocaine can have a calming effect because it increases dopaminergic transmission, which is dysfunctional in ADHD. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, motivation and learning. Cocaine may therefore help people with ADHD manage symptoms impulsiveness, restlessness and inattention.

The drug affects certain brain structures, including:

  • accumbens and ventral pallidum, which form the reward system
  • the amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for working memory
  • the orbitofrontal and subcallosal cortices, which play a role in volition
  • the prefrontal cortex and cingulate gyrus, which are important for executive control

It inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, which means more of these “pleasure chemicals” continue to circulate in the blood.

Effects in people without ADHD include increased arousal, euphoria, and heightened alertness and alertness. However, people with ADHD may experience relief from the executive and behavioral dysfunctions that occur with the disease.

People with ADHD may be more susceptible to cocaine use disorders and other substance use disorders. For example, a balance sheet 2014 notes research in which 23% of young adults with substance use disorders also had ADHD.

In a Canadian Study 2021 of 6,872 people aged 20 to 39, participants with ADHD were significantly more likely to have a substance use disorder than those without.

When considering cocaine specifically, some studies indicate that the prevalence of cocaine use among adults with ADHD is approximately 26%, with 1 in 10 people developing cocaine use disorder. By comparison, in the general population, 1.9% of people aged 12 and over will have used the drug in the past year.

There are many reasons why people with ADHD may “self-medicate” with cocaine. However, the main reason is that cocaine’s effects on the brain can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with ADHD.

Cocaine works the same way as prescription drugs on systems that aren’t working as they should in people with ADHD. Cocaine use causes an increase in dopamine, compensating for the lack of the chemical.

Cocaine use in ADHD may not produce the classic “rush” and high-energy state that people without the condition often experience. Instead, people with ADHD may find cocaine provides more focus and calm. This can be appealing to people who may feel like they can’t keep up with the world around them.

However, a person should never consider cocaine use as a treatment for ADHD due to the risks associated with this illegal drug.

Cocaine is a substance subject to abuse, and people with ADHD can be more sensitive to develop a cocaine use disorder. This disorder can lead to many problems, including financial difficulties, relationship problems, and mental health problems.

Long-term cocaine use can also have negative health effects, including:

  • psychosis
  • increased risk of stroke and seizures
  • inflammation of the heart muscle
  • significant weight loss

The use of the drug can even lead to death in some cases.

Young adults with ADHD are more likely than people without ADHD to use substances, including drugs and alcohol. Children with ADHD may also feel attracted to substances that have a calming effect, and their brains may be more sensitive to drugs and feel their effects more strongly.

Drugs, alcohol, and other substances are likely to provide quick relief from ADHD symptoms, calming the mind and reducing racing thoughts.

For example, cocaine can increase short-term attention, while cannabis can provide mild sedation and euphoria.

In addition to ADHD symptoms, other risk factors can increase a person’s likelihood of turning to drugs or alcohol. For example, people with ADHD may also have mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, which may also increase the risk of substance use.

ADHD medication use does not increase the likelihood of substance use. In fact, the opposite could be true. A 2016 analysis of 150,000 young people with ADHD found that those who took ADHD medication were 7.3% less likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who did not. Therefore, it seems that effective treatment of ADHD might protect against substance abuse.

There is no single effective treatment for ADHD, and people with this condition can use a variety of strategies to manage their symptoms and improve their functioning. These strategies can to understand:

  • Medications : Stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) are established medications for ADHD, and up to 80% of children with ADHD experience fewer symptoms when using them. Doctors may also recommend non-stimulant medications that have a longer lasting effect.
  • Therapies: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and child behavior therapy can help reinforce positive behaviors and reduce problem behaviors. Behavior management parent training involves a therapist working with parents or caregivers to help them manage the child’s behavior.

Individuals can also benefit from training to improve their organizational and time management skills. This training can help them complete tasks and meet deadlines more easily.

Learn more about medications and natural remedies for ADHD.

Anyone with symptoms of ADHD should seek a diagnosis from a qualified physician. The doctor can rule out other potential causes for the symptoms and put in place an appropriate treatment plan.

Without treatment, many people with ADHD may find it difficult to manage their symptoms. These individuals may have an increased risk of developing substance use disorders as a coping strategy.

A diagnosis of ADHD involves a full evaluation of the person’s symptoms, family history, and the presence of any other health conditions. Although the specific approach may vary from doctor to doctor, diagnostic protocols generally include:

  • Diagnostic interview and medical history: This standardized set of questions covers a wide range of topics and determines how many diagnostic criteria apply to the individual. The interview can also help doctors determine if the person may have other psychiatric conditions that might mimic ADHD.
  • Information from other people: The doctor may also interview family members or significant others to fully understand the individual’s symptoms and behaviors.
  • DSM-5 symptom checklists: The standardized scales for evaluating the behavior of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) allow a comparison between people with ADHD and those without. Although they are not diagnostic in themselves, they contribute to the overall assessment process.
  • Additional tests: Depending on the results of the assessments, a doctor may use additional psychological or learning disability tests.
  • Medical exam: A thorough physical exam can help rule out other medical causes of symptoms such as thyroid problems or seizures.

Learn more about untreated ADHD in adults.

Some people with ADHD may be tempted to use cocaine to relieve their symptoms. Cocaine mirrors the effects of prescription stimulants because, like them, it causes a dopamine surge. However, there are significant risks associated with illegal cocaine use.

People with ADHD are more likely to develop substance use disorders. Therefore, anyone with symptoms of ADHD should seek diagnosis and treatment.

ADHD treatment usually involves both medication and therapy. These interventions can help a person manage their symptoms and reduce their risk of developing problems with cocaine and other substances.