What Are Cocaine Eyes?

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Among one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the world, cocaine has maintained its popularity throughout the decades. Regardless of its popularity, this powerful stimulant can dramatically impact the lives, families, and communities where addiction is frequent. One of the most powerful tools that communities are utilizing in the fight against the detrimental side effects of this substance is awareness. As more people become aware of the signs and symptoms of cocaine use, they are able to provide help to those who may have a substance use disorder. A common method of recognizing when cocaine has been used is noticing the phenomenon known as “cocaine eyes.”

If you or someone you know is struggling to take their life back from a cocaine use disorder, call Guardian Recovery today. We are available day or night to speak with you to review your best options for substance use treatment. Hope is available, and the first step on your journey to freedom may be closer than you realize. Call us today.

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Cocaine Eyes & Their Appearance

One of the most common and easily observable reactions to the use of a stimulant like cocaine is the dilation of the eye’s pupils. The pupil is the black part of your eye located in the center of the iris. Its main function (1) is growing or shrinking in order to let more or less light in the eye for optimal focus to your vision. How quickly these effects will be noticeable on the person using cocaine is determined by their route of administration. If someone were to smoke (also known as freebase) cocaine, the substance will begin to affect their body within 4-6 seconds. Similarly, if someone were to snort cocaine, the effects will be felt within 1-3 minutes.

Effects & Conditions of Cocaine on Pupils & Eyes

Cocaine causes dilated pupils (2) because of inhibition of reuptake of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a powerful neurotransmitter found in the brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for communicating various signals to different parts of the brain and body to elicit various responses. Norepinephrine is known to be responsible for inducing the body’s “fight or flight” response when in potential danger. As cocaine causes the release of this chemical and stops it from being reabsorbed into the brain, your body will enter into this state of heightened awareness.

One of the natural bodily responses to this heightened state (3)of awareness is the dilation of the pupils. As the pupils dilate, letting less light into the eye, the person feeling these effects is able to become hyper-focused on one specific object. This is potentially life saving when you are in a dangerous situation, but hyper awareness when no danger is present can often lead to unwanted side effects like paranoia.

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Glaucoma is a condition present in millions worldwide and is caused by the buildup of fluid in the eye causing damage to the optic nerve and potentially causing blindness. Recent studies (4) have shown that people who use cocaine are 45 percent more likely to develop open-angle glaucoma, the most common form of this eye condition. Though the correlation has not been proven, significant data shows that there is a correlation between frequent cocaine use and the development of glaucoma.

Talc Retinopathy

Talc retinopathy (5) is a condition in which small yellow crystal-like substances begin to develop in various layers of the eye. This condition can develop in those who use intravenous drugs frequently. Talc is a common filler found in many medications and illegal drugs. If this substance is introduced into the body repeatedly without being filtered through other systems, it can make its way to the eye and begin to cause this potentially harmful condition.


Nystagmus (6) is an involuntary rhythmic side-to-side, up and down or circular motion of the eyes that occurs with a variety of conditions. As the stimulating effects of cocaine begin to act on the body’s central nervous system, one of the unfortunate conditions that can develop from its over stimulation is this involuntary motor condition of the eye.


If cocaine is used intranasally (snorted) it can have a variety of toxic effects on the surrounding body tissue. One of the effects that it can have on the nearby eye is known as Maculopathy (7). This condition causes the person to have distorted views of various colors and pigments.


Keratitis (8), also known as  a “corneal ulcer”, is a common condition found in those who frequently use crack cocaine. As blood vessels are constricted and blood flow is limited to various parts of the body from cocaine use, blood is not able to flow properly in and out of the eye causing an ulcer in the cornea known as Keratitis.


One of the organs most heavily impacted by the frequent use of cocaine is the liver (9). In animal testing, cocaine was metabolized into an extremely toxic chemical for the body. As the filter of toxic chemicals, the liver was overworked and eventually began to fail. One of the results from an improperly functioning liver is a condition known as Jaundice. As toxins are not filtered from the body, a result can be the yellowing of the parts of the eye which are normally white.

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Long-Term Effects on the Cornea, Retina & Vision

As cocaine use continues, the chances of negative effects on the eyes increase substantially. With the constriction of blood flow along with the toxic chemicals introduced into the body, frequent cocaine use poses a major threat to the optical health of the person who uses it.

As cocaine use disorder is better understood, more and more people are able to get the life saving help that they need. Guardian Recovery is committed to helping those who struggle with this dangerous condition. If you or someone you love is struggling, reach out today. Your journey to freedom is closer than you may think.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.nei.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2019-06/parts-of-the-eye.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6886135/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3183372/
  4. https://journals.lww.com/glaucomajournal/Abstract/2011/09000/Substance_Use_Disorder_and_the_Risk_of_Open_angle.9.aspx
  5. https://eyewiki.aao.org/Crystalline_Retinopathy#:~:text=Talc%20retinopathy%20is%20seen%20in,methylphenidate%2C%20methadone%2C%20and%20meperidine.
  6. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/nystagmus#:~:text=Nystagmus%20is%20an%20involuntary%20rhythmic,with%20a%20variety%20of%20conditions.
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19787615/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17052948/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548454/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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