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Pediatric Cocaine Abuse Treatment & Management

  • Author: Anthony J Weekes, MD, RDMS, RDCS; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 14, 2016

Medical Care

Unless a patient presents in an acutely intoxicated state or with cocaine-related complaints, the most important intervention is education and prevention. Most mild intoxications require only supportive care. Prevention of absorption is difficult because most cocaine exposures travel through IN, IV, or intrapulmonary routes.

Cocaine abuse and addiction is a complex mixture of neurobiologic, social, environmental, and familial problems. No pharmacologic agents have proven effective to treat or counteract cocaine addiction, although the NIDA is actively involved in research on this problem. Antidopaminergic agents, disulfiram, and antidepressants for the mood swings of early abstinence have been investigated. In 1999, selegiline entered phase III of a multicenter clinical trial and has shown some promise.

  • The most effective therapies available focus on behavioral interventions. Intervention should involve several approaches and should address associated psychiatric disorders.
    • Discuss the medical, behavioral, psychological, and social effects of cocaine use with patients, patients' families, and others who provide support. Family therapy and self-help groups such as Cocaine Anonymous, which use 12-step programs, can have important support roles.
    • Behavioral interventions are effective for cocaine addiction. Contingency management is a popular and effective form of behavioral therapy. Patients are awarded points for drug-free urine samples. These points then can be traded for positive prosocial items (eg, passes to a gymnasium, tickets to a movie). Cognitive-behavioral therapy's aim is to maintain recovery states by helping patients "...recognize, avoid, and cope." Substance refusal, anger control, problem solving, and leisure-time management are crucial skills needed for successful recovery.
    • Relapse prevention is challenging. Therapy provided in an outpatient setting requires frequent follow-up appointments. Missed appointments commonly signal a relapse. Examples of relapse prevention include monitoring the temptations and urges to use cocaine or other drugs, rehearsing ways to avoid friends who encourage drug use, and living with relatives who are drug-free. Relapses can range in severity from slips involving several days of drug use to resumption of regular drug use and addiction.
    • Inpatient treatments (eg, residential communities) offer 6- to 12-month stays designed to provide comprehensive treatment. Programs may include treatment for coexisting mental problems, vocational rehabilitation, and other services to help the cocaine or polydrug-addicted patient return to constructive activity in society and avoid relapse.
    • Coexisting psychiatric disorders may require treatment. Early symptoms of abstinence may resemble symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Depression during early abstinence may be sufficiently severe to cause suicidal ideation or attempts; therefore, carefully assess cocaine users in early abstinence for mood disorder and maintain concern for their safety. Medication for psychiatric syndromes may be indicated when symptoms persist beyond a few weeks into the abstinence period. Medication may be initiated more rapidly in cases involving a documented comorbid psychiatric disorder.
    • Encourage the patient toward a community environment or activities that limit temptations for relapse and that promote prosocial alternatives to deviant behavior and relationships. Some patients' interests may be served by relocating to another neighborhood.
  • Agitation and hyperthermia are the major causes of death due to cocaine toxicity. Medical treatment for these conditions includes the following:
    • Establish airway control, if necessary, and IV access.
    • Obtain a core temperature.
    • Sedation is the mainstay of treatment. Benzodiazepines are very useful in the management of toxicity. Administer benzodiazepines titrated to sedation. (Avoid neuroleptic agents, if possible, because they may impair heat dissipation, lower the seizure threshold, and cause a dystonic reaction.)
    • Avoid physical restraints because they may exacerbate hyperthermia and acidosis and may cause death if used alone. If necessary, use restraints to allow administration of chemical sedation.
    • Aggressive cooling with ice water baths, mist and fans, and ice packs is important until a core temperature of 101-102°F is reached within 30-45 minutes.
  • To treat seizures, initial airway control and IV access are critical. Subsequent management steps include the following:
    • Evaluate for hypoxia, hypoglycemia, and electrolyte disturbances.
    • Treat seizures with GABA-ergic drugs such as benzodiazepines; however, refractory cases may require propofol or phenobarbital. GABE-ergic drugs also decrease CNS catecholamine release. Avoid succinylcholine because of the risk of exacerbating hyperkalemia in a patient with cocaine-induced rhabdomyolysis. Avoid sodium channel blocking anticonvulsant drugs like phenytoin.
    • Temporary neuromuscular blockade may be necessary for rapid sequence intubation but the absence of motor activity due to paralysis does not stop brain injury or ongoing seizures.
    • Brain CT scanning is highly recommended in patients with cocaine-induced seizures because of the risk of intracranial hemorrhages.
  • Treat hypertension as follows:
    • Treatment for agitation and anxiety often reduces the elevated blood pressure (BP); therefore, sedation with benzodiazepines is a prudent initial therapy.
    • Some patients continue to have high BP despite sedation; these individuals require other pharmacologic agents as well as sedation and decreased environmental stimuli.
    • Nitroprusside, nitroglycerin, or phentolamine can be used to lower BP more aggressively. These agents are short-acting, similar to cocaine, and can be rapidly titrated off as the patient improves, thus avoiding potential hypotension that might occur with use of longer-acting vasodilators.
    • Avoid beta-blocker use because of the unopposed alpha stimulation that results. Labetalol has both alpha and beta antagonism but in a 1:7 ratio. Theoretically, labetalol has insufficient alpha blockage. Esmolol has a safer profile because of its beta-1 selective antagonism, rapid onset, and short duration of activity.
  • Cardiovascular treatment includes the following:
    • Use aspirin, nitrates, and benzodiazepines to treat patients with cocaine-related myocardial ischemia.
    • Calcium channel blockers are alpha antagonists and make more sense than beta-blockers.
    • Treatment with nonselective beta-blockers is relatively contraindicated because they may potentiate cocaine-induced coronary vasoconstriction.
    • Depleted norepinephrine stores may result in hypotension, which necessitates treatment with dopamine or norepinephrine.
    • Although advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) guidelines recommend treatment of ventricular dysrhythmias with lidocaine, the focus of ACLS is usually coronary artery disease-induced myocardial dysfunction. Sodium bicarbonate is a better, evidenced-based first choice for any wide-complex dysrhythmia due to sodium channel blockade, followed by lidocaine, then cardioversion. Lidocaine (also a sodium channel blocker) seems contradictory, but because it is a fast-on, fast-off sodium channel blocker, it competes with agents that bind the channel longer, thus freeing up channels to function normally.
    • Class 1A and 1C antiarrhythmic agents are contraindicated.
  • Treatment for patients with rhabdomyolysis requires aggressive hydration. Diuretics, such as mannitol or furosemide, can be used to ensure that urine output is at least 3 mL/kg/h. Dialysis may be needed to treat renal failure.

Surgical Care

Neurosurgical care may be necessary for intracranial bleeding (eg, to monitor for intracranial pressure or to surgically decompress subdural or epidural hematomas).

Other cocaine-related complications and pertinent surgical care include the following:

  • Pneumothorax - Chest tube placement
  • Abscess - Incision and drainage
  • Fractures or dislocations - Orthopedic reduction/immobilization or intraoperative repair


Referral to a primary care physician to exclude medical causes is recommended. A more encompassing evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist is then indicated. Input from behavioral and developmental pediatric specialists should be sought for truly specialized and long-term care especially with the large volume of patients that are in need.

Specialized psychiatric/mental health care, also called substance use disorder (SUD) treatment, must be emphasized. SUD treatment helps identify risks factors for cocaine relapse and provides effective strategies to reduce the risk of cocaine relapse. According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 7% of adolescents who were candidates for SUD treatment actually received the treatment. An 8-year (2001-2008) cross-sectional survey of data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health revealed that while substance use disorder referral and treatment is quite low amongst all adolescents, it is especially low in African American and Latino adolescents (8.4%) and up to 23.5% in Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander adolescents.[20]

The following additional consultants may be needed:

  • Cardiologist
  • Toxicologist or poison control center
  • Drug counselor
  • Neurologist
  • Neurosurgeon
  • Infectious diseases specialist
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Anthony J Weekes, MD, RDMS, RDCS Ultrasound Fellowship Director, Associate Director of Emergency Ultrasound, Department of Emergency Medicine, Carolinas Medical Center

Anthony J Weekes, MD, RDMS, RDCS is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Douglas S Lee, MD Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Naples Community Hospital

Douglas S Lee, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Caroly Pataki, MD Health Sciences Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Caroly Pataki, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York Academy of Sciences, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Chet Johnson, MD Professor of Pediatrics, Associate Director and Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician, KU Center for Child Health and Development, Shiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies; Assistant Dean, Faculty Affairs and Development, University of Kansas School of Medicine

Chet Johnson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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