Last updated: 05 November 2023 & medically reviewed by Hailey Shafir
- Crack affects the brain in a similar way to most stimulants, that is by producing an influx of dopamine, the brain chemical most closely linked to addiction
- Most overdoses from crack cocaine occur during a ‘crack binge’. These binging sessions, where users take hits frequently to maintain a high, can result in an overdose as the symptoms are hard to distinguish from the comedown felt from crack abuse
- Crack cocaine withdrawal symptoms are one of the toughest hurdles to overcoming a crack addiction and are one of the main reasons people fail to quit
Table of contentsToggle table of contents ↑ ↓
Table of contents:
Understanding crack cocaine
Crack cocaine is produced by taking the base form of cocaine, dissolving it in a combination of water and baking soda, boiling the mixture to separate out the solids, cooling the firm parts, and cutting into smaller chunks known as ‘rocks’.
Crack (named for the cracking noise made during the production process) is snorted or most commonly smoked through a glass pipe (though sometimes through aluminum foil or other thin metals) in small amounts. This method of ingestion means the chemicals from crack reach the brain much faster than standard powder cocaine. The high from crack is instant, intense, and powerful, though it only lasts a brief time (up to around 15 minutes).
This relatively short but powerful high often causes the user to chase the sensation, smoking more crack in regular intervals to recapture the sensation. This makes crack an incredibly addictive drug and one that is easily abused. The repetitive and consistent nature of smoking crack makes it potentially more addictive than powdered cocaine.
Crack affects the brain in a similar way to most stimulants, that is by producing an influx of dopamine, the brain chemical most closely linked to addiction. This surge in dopamine levels creates a sensation of pleasure and reward, causing the user to experience boosts in their mood and energy. 
This sensation is far stronger than can be naturally achieved through standard levels of dopamine, and taking crack can actually prevent the natural generation of the chemical. This means that taking crack can rewire the brain and cause a tolerance to the substance to form quickly. According to the Science and Practice Perspectives, the brain can become rewired from crack abuse after just one hit.
Crack cocaine also goes by the slang names rock, base, kryptonite, sleet, base, candy, cookies, and of course simply ‘crack’.
Crack cocaine symptoms of abuse
Crack is a Schedule II illicit substance under the Controlled Substance Act and therefore any use of crack is considered abuse.  Crack cocaine is an already extremely potent stimulant and the method of ingestion (smoking) causes the high to be felt almost instantly. This is why crack is believed to be even more addictive than cocaine, causing users to binge use it.
The effects of crack cocaine include:
As the intense pleasure felt from crack is desirable, and the effect the drug has on rewiring the brain’s chemical patterns, those who abuse crack will build a tolerance to its effects quickly. This tolerance will often eventually lead to a crack dependence forming, meaning the person using crack will require more of the drug to feel normal or to feel pleasure. Over time and with repeated use of the drug, this can lead to an addiction.
Related: Crack abuse and stigma
The symptoms of a crack overdose are similar to those felt from regular cocaine. The main difference is the speed at which these symptoms present themselves. Much like the high felt from crack use, the symptoms of an overdose come on much faster than they do with regular powdered cocaine. Here are some common symptoms of a crack overdose: 
Feeling feverish or otherwise hot to the touch
Excessive chest pain, especially around the heart
Rapid heartbeat even while resting
Uncontrollable energy, agitation, or manic behavior
Nausea or weakness
Beginning of hallucinations
Most overdoses from crack cocaine occur during a ‘crack binge’. These binging sessions, where users take hits frequently to maintain a high, can result in an overdose as the symptoms are hard to distinguish from the comedown felt from crack abuse. This can lead to a fatal overdose as the person abusing crack takes more and more on the assumption that they are coming down as opposed to overusing. The risk of crack cocaine overdose is greatly increased when the person is taking other substances, such as alcohol.
Read here to learn more about the health risks of crack cocaine.
Addiction to crack cocaine
Crack cocaine abuse can often lead to someone developing an addiction, though they are not the same thing. Crack abuse will often cause negative side effects to the user, but this does not mean they are unable to quit on their own (though the high potency of crack means addiction can form even after the first time taking it). Crack cocaine addiction is more complicated and often requires help to overcome.
Like most forms of addiction, a person with a crack cocaine use disorder will be diagnosed by a licensed professional using these 11 criteria, outlined by the DSM-5: 
Hazardous use: You have used the substance in ways that are dangerous to yourself and/or others, i.e., overdosed, driven while under the influence, or blacked out.
Social or interpersonal problems related to use: Substance use has caused relationship problems or conflicts with others.
Neglected major roles to use: You have failed to meet your responsibilities at work, school, or home because of substance use.
Withdrawal: When you stop using the substance, you experience withdrawal symptoms.
Tolerance: You have built up a tolerance to the substance so that you have to use more to get the same effect.
Used larger amounts/longer: You have started to use larger amounts or use the substance for longer amounts of time.
Repeated attempts to control use or quit: You've tried to cut back or quit entirely, but haven't been successful.
Much time spent using: You spend a lot of your time using the substance.
Activities given up to use: You have skipped activities or stopped doing activities you once enjoyed in order to use the substance.
Craving: You have experienced an intense craving for the substance.
These criteria are measured by the negative impact the substance has on a person's life; including physical, psychological, and behavioral measures, and are classified as mild, moderate, and severe. The criteria are measured against the previous 12 months of substance use and a score of 2-3 is considered mild, 3-5 moderate, and 6 or more severe.  Even severe crack cocaine addictions can be treated and overcome.
Crack withdrawal symptoms
Crack cocaine addiction manifests with both a psychological and physical dependence which can appear as early as the first time of use. This makes crack addiction very hard to overcome. Many people who are addicted to crack find it easier to start their recovery in an inpatient setting, where there is more structure and fewer chances of being triggered or relapsing. This can be especially important for people in the first week of sobriety when withdrawals and cravings tend to be the most severe. This is called the acute withdrawal phase. 
Lack of concentration
After a week, the drug has left the person’s system and the worst of the withdrawals are over. However, a small number of people will go on to experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), which includes less severe symptoms of withdrawal that can last for months or even a year or more after a person stops smoking crack. PAWS usually involves psychological distress rather than physical symptoms experienced during the acute phase.
Protracted withdrawal symptoms may include:
Poor sleep patterns
Lack of motivation
Inability to feel pleasure
Crack cocaine withdrawal symptoms are one of the toughest hurdles to overcoming a crack addiction and are one of the main reasons people fail to quit. By detoxing in an inpatient treatment facility, people often find it much easier to establish their sobriety and make it through the early withdrawals without relapsing.
Detox medication for crack addiction
Unlike detoxing from other drugs, such as opioid prescription medications, there is no tapering process for crack cocaine detox. This is because, unlike some other substances, cocaine and crack are not dangerous to withdraw from, and for most people, the worst symptoms will resolve in a few days to a week on their own. Still, to help people through this process, medication will often be administered to help the person feel more comfortable during this process of detox.
Drugs that may be used during crack detox and what they treat:
Clonidine - High blood pressure and anxiety reduction
Gabapentin - Seizures, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, and insomnia
Propranolol - Anxiety
Trazodone - Sleep
Seroquel - Sleep
Vigabatrin - Anxiety
Vistaril - Anxiety
After the initial detox stage, the next phase of treatment can begin.
Treatment for crack cocaine addiction
Crack addiction can be powerful and devastating to someone's way of life, but help is available and there are plenty of treatment centers that can help people overcome their addiction and regain control over their lives. If you or someone you know is suffering from a crack cocaine use disorder, contact a treatment center today to learn more about your options.
Here are some frequently asked questions about crack cocaine:
What is a "crack head"?
The term "crack head" is a long-used slur that is targeted at not only crack addicts but most people suffering from addiction. Terms like crack head are what lead to stigmas around addiction; slowing open conversation about the problem and stopping those that need help from getting it.
What is a crack pipe?
Crack pipes are one of the most common instruments used to take crack. They often resemble thin glass tubes but can be made from many household objects. However, crack pipes are not the only paraphernalia used when taking crack.
How long does crack stay in your system?
Like with most forms of drug abuse, the amount of time crack will stay in your body will vary depending on multiple factors and the type of toxicology test used.
How much does crack cost?
The exact cost of crack varies greatly across the country, with some states having much lower street values than others.
What is crack lung?
Smoking crack does not only greatly increase the risk of developing addiction, there are also several health risks associated with it, such as crack lung.
How is crack made?
Most forms of illicit drugs will be made using a range of chemicals and substances by drug dealers and manufacturers. What goes into street drugs varies greatly, affecting purity, price, and risk. The exact process of how crack is made can also vary, with drug dealers often using new techniques and chemicals to reduce cost and increase potency.
What does crack look, smell, and taste like?
Can be difficult to identify what substance a person is abusing just by the smell and look of it. Crack has a unique look, smell, and taste that makes it easily distinguishable from other street drugs.