Learned Tolerance and Overdose Risk: What You Need to Know
Even long-term cocaine users who think they know their limits can be at serious risk of overdose in unfamiliar environments. Here we take a closer look at the hidden dangers of learned tolerance.
While the concept of learned tolerance has been around for some time, it has yet to enter the mainstream public consciousness despite its serious ramifications for anyone dependent on drugs or alcohol.
In essence, learned tolerance is a process whereby drug or alcohol users develop an increased tolerance based on their environment, or even the time of day when they take the substance. This means that even though you may have developed a physiological tolerance to a drug through repeated use, you may still be susceptible to an overdose or other adverse effects if you use it in an unfamiliar environment.
This approach to tolerance has changed how many medical and counselling professionals view the more traditional understanding that overdoses only occur when users consume more of a drug than they are physiologically accustomed to.
“If the same amount of a drug is administered in one context and later in another different and distinct context, then the effects of the drug are different,” said Antonio Cepeda-Benito, a psychologist at Texas A&M University. “The drug has a much greater effect in a novel context rather than in a context that is associated with the administered drug.”
The Specificity of Tolerance
The effects of learned tolerance have been observed in both experimental and real-world settings. One study, for example, looked at the effects of alcohol in different settings. Participants drank alcohol in two distinct scenarios: beer at a bar and, on a different occasion, a sugary carbonated drink in an office with the same amount of alcohol. The participants in the office setting were found to become more intoxicated, despite drinking the same amount of alcohol.
In the real world, the apparent effects of learned tolerance can have serious consequences. In 2010, nine US college students were hospitalised after drinking caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko. Initially the hospitalisations were blamed on the caffeine content in the drink, but later research identified the drink’s fruity flavour, which we normally do not associate with alcohol, as being a possible cause of the hospitalisations.
“Four Loko’s fruit flavour hasn’t been previously paired with alcohol, and because that association between flavour and alcohol hasn’t been made, greater intoxication may occur,” said Shepard Siegel of McMaster University.
While this highlights the potential risks of consuming alcohol in unfamiliar settings, the dangers for users of ‘hard’ drugs such as cocaine or heroin could be much more serious.
In spite of the evidence pointing to environmental effects on tolerance, many people still believe that it is strictly a physiological process. This is a potentially dangerous misconception as drinking or doing drugs in a new environment, even at ‘normal’ quantities, can land a person in a risky situation.
Rising Cocaine Overdoses
Cocaine delivers an intense, short-lived high that leaves users wanting more, even before they become dependent on the drug. In this sense it fits the classic tolerance-overdose scenario: users need to take more of the drug to achieve the same high. Indeed, many habitual cocaine users report that they constantly seek, but fail to achieve, the level of euphoria they achieved when they first started using the drug.
This could potentially be extremely dangerous for habitual cocaine users, especially when taking the drug outside of its normal environment. Cocaine-related deaths in the US have increased dramatically in recent years, claiming about 7,000 lives in 2015.
While there are no official statistics on the number of cocaine overdoses in Australia, a recent upward trend in the use of the drug is worrying. The United Nations’ 2014 World Drug Report found that Australia had the fourth highest proportion of cocaine users in the world.
Cocaine is notoriously unpredictable in its effects. Long-time users who would be expected to have built up a tolerance can overdose on a small amount. There have been cases of deaths after a single dose consisting of a few hundred milligrams, while others have taken several grams of the drug in a short space of time and survived.
The potential dangers of learned tolerance only add to this unpredictability. Cocaine use is always a crap shoot and may be even more dangerous when taken out of your usual environment.
Be Aware of the Warning Signs
If you use cocaine you should always be on the lookout for the danger signs of an overdose, especially when using in an unfamiliar setting. If you feel any of the following symptoms, or see them in anyone around you who has used cocaine, you should seek medical help immediately:
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Heightened temperature
- Difficulty breathing or irregular breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Tremors or shakes
- Loss of consciousness
Failure to treat these symptoms can lead to fatal organ failure and even death.
The best way to eliminate the dangers of a cocaine overdose is to stop using the drug entirely. If you want to break your cocaine habit, contact us today to learn how we can help you.