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What Is Crack Lung?

Marjorie McAtee
By Marjorie McAtee
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Crack lung is a pulmonary condition that can occur in those who use large amounts of the narcotic crack cocaine. The illness typically causes fever, coughing, phlegm, intense pain, and bleeding from the lungs. Crack lung sometimes shows up as lung abnormalities on X-rays, though this is not always the case. It can cause severe inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. The condition can lead to chronic lung damage and death.

The symptoms of crack lung are often likened to those of pneumonia or emphysema. They generally appear only after heavy use of crack cocaine. Symptoms will usually begin within two days of crack cocaine abuse. While its symptoms are similar to emphysema, crack lung is typically considered a more acute illness. While emphysema typically develops over years of smoking cigarettes or exposure to other airborne toxins, crack lung usually occurs quite soon after large amounts of crack cocaine are smoked.

Experts believe that the lung damage caused by smoking crack cocaine occurs because cocaine typically causes the narrowing of blood vessels. This narrowing can lead to sharp increases in blood pressure in the lungs. When large amounts of crack cocaine are smoked continuously over a prolonged period of several hours or more, the tissues of the lungs can begin to suffer from restricted blood flow. As a result, lung tissues may not receive the oxygen they need to function properly. Inflammation and, eventually, scarring can occur as a result of crack lung.

While lung tissue is generally considered difficult to damage irreparably, doctors usually stress that the tissue cannot recover once it is damaged. It may take some time for crack lung to lead to significant long-term lung symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, and reduced ability to exercise. Most medical experts agree that this window of time is much shorter than it is for emphysema, a condition in which the lungs are usually damaged by long-term tobacco smoking. Acute episodes may lead to death if not treated quickly.

When inflammation or scarring of the lung tissues occurs, crack lung may be suspected if the person is younger than about 50 years of age. That's because emphysema doesn't normally appear in people younger than 50, unless they possess a rare genetic anomaly. A history of crack cocaine use is usually considered an indicator of the condition. Lung function tests, MRIs, and X-rays are usually used to diagnose lung damage due to crack cocaine use.

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Discussion Comments

By anon967258 — On Aug 26, 2014

How does one treat crack lung?

By ZipLine — On Jan 01, 2013

@burcidi-- That's a good question, I don't have an exact answer for it.

But I wrote a paper on this for my class and I learned during my research that respiratory arrest is the second cause of death for cocaine/crack abusers. So a significant proportion of cocaine related deaths must be due to the failure of the lungs.

The primary cause of death however is cardiac arrest, so basically a heart attack or stroke that causes the heart to stop.

By stoneMason — On Dec 31, 2012

I work in a recovery facility for drug addicts and I have seen firsthand the kind of side effects experienced by cocaine addicts. They usually have trouble breathing, have coughing fits and will cough up blackish residue.

A few of the addicts have had to be hospitalized due to difficulty breathing and were probably experiencing crack lung. Cocaine is hard on the body in general, but it's so bad for the lungs. Once the lungs have been damaged by cocaine use, it won't ever be as good as new again. Especially when lung issues have become chronic as is the case with crack lung.

By burcidi — On Dec 31, 2012

What proportion of cocaine users die from crack lung or complications caused by it?

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