Can Cocaine Cause Corneal Ulcers?

Cocaine is an illicit drug that can affect vision and the eyes in a number of ways, both due to the effects of cocaine, and associated factors, like rubbing your eyes after drug use.

One of the most serious ocular effects of cocaine abuse that can occur is the development of corneal ulcers, as well as chronic complications like vision loss and blindness.

Here you’ll find more information on:

  • effects of cocaine on the eyes
  • how cocaine affects eyesight
  • treatment options for cocaine abuse

What Are Corneal Ulcers?

The cornea is the clear, protective layer of the eye that covers the iris and round pupil. Unfortunately, it can be subject to damage and infection.

A corneal ulcer, also known as ulcerative keratitis, is described by the American Academy of Ophthalmology as an open sore that develops on the cornea.

Symptoms of a corneal ulcer include:

  • redness of the eye
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • severe pain or soreness of the eye
  • discharge from the eye (e.g. pus)
  • tearing
  • feeling of having something in your eye

What Causes A Corneal Ulcer?

A corneal ulcer can be caused by a number of things, and can become a serious issue if left untreated by an ophthalmologist, which is a doctor who specializes in eye and vision care.

Causes of keratitis might include:

  • bacterial infection
  • viral infection
  • fungal infections
  • eye injury (e.g. abrasions/burns to the cornea)
  • eyelid disorders (e.g. Bell’s palsy)
  • dry eye syndrome
  • improper use or storage of contact lens
  • use of certain drugs (e.g. cocaine, nicotine smoking)

How Does Cocaine Cause Corneal Ulcers?

Research shows there may be a couple of ways that cocaine use can lead to the development of corneal ulcers, although the exact cause of this may not always be clear.

What is believed to cause cocaine-associated corneal ulcers:

  • rubbing the eyes after using cocaine
  • retrograde passage of cocaine through the tear duct (caused by sniffing/snorting cocaine)
  • direct toxicity of cocaine smoke or other substances cut with cocaine (e.g. aerosolized adulterants like talcum powder, flour, or starch)

Cocaine can have a number of adverse effects on the cornea, hence the term “crack cornea,” which refers to damage to the cornea that is caused by crack cocaine use.

How Does Cocaine Affect The Cornea?

A “crack cornea,” or cocaine-related cornea damage, is most commonly associated with intranasal cocaine use (snorting/sniffing) and cocaine smoking.

However, it is also common to suffer ocular damage, particularly to the cornea, simply by rubbing or touching your eyes after touching cocaine.

This can cause irritation, redness, infection, corneal epithelial defects, and lead to the development of other corneal complications, including lesions and perforation.

What Are Other Side Effects Of Cocaine Abuse On The Eyes?

Corneal ulcers are one of the more serious concerns of crack cocaine abuse. But cocaine can also have a number of other short-term and long-term effects on the eyes.

What Are The Short-Term Effects Of Cocaine On The Eyes?

Cocaine is a stimulant that affects a brain chemical known as norepinephrine, which is associated with the bigger pupil size that can occur after you use cocaine.

Dilated pupils due to cocaine use, or larger pupil size, is a common short-term side effect that can occur fairly quickly, within minutes.

Other short-term effects can include:

  • reduced blinking
  • irritated eyes
  • bloodshot eyes
  • blurred vision
  • hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
  • conjunctival blanching

The term “cocaine eyes” is commonly used to describe the bloodshot or dilated appearance of a person’s eyes after snorting, injecting, or smoking cocaine.

What Are The Long-Term Effects Of Cocaine On The Eyes?

Chronic cocaine use, or heavy cocaine use, can lead to serious ophthalmic impairment and long-term ocular complications.

Chronic cocaine use may cause:

  • decreased visual acuity
  • glaucoma
  • blindness
  • ocular bone damage
  • nystagmus (small eye movements)
  • neurotrophic keratopathy

According to case reports from researchers, the development of optic neuropathy, orbital apex syndrome, and other adverse effects on the eyes have been reported in those who use cocaine.

What Is The Treatment For Corneal Ulcers?

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the usual treatment for a corneal ulcer is antifungal, antibiotic, or antiviral eye drops.

Prescription eye drops may help to reduce swelling, inflammation, and prevent scarring. A corneal transplant may also be recommended if the damage is severe.

But the treatment will also depend on the cause. Corneal ulcers associated with cocaine use will likely have a treatment plan that involves substance abuse treatment.

Common treatments for cocaine addiction include:

Cocaine is an addictive drug that can be difficult to stop using alone. 

At Bedrock Recovery Center, our treatment programs offer a range of treatments and support services to help people with cocaine addiction, including medical care.

Find Treatment For Cocaine Abuse And Addiction

Our leading treatment center in Canton, Massachusetts offers a range of high-quality treatment options for people with addiction.

If you or a loved one are concerned about the effects of cocaine use, call our helpline today to learn more about how our treatment specialists may be able to help.

  1. American Academy of Ophthalmology — What Is a Corneal Ulcer (Keratitis)?
  2. Indian Journal of Medical Research — Illicit drugs: Effects on eye
  3. Review of Optometry — How Drug Abuse Affects the Eye
  4. The Journal of Cornea and External Disease — Corneal Ulcers Associated With Aerosolized Crack Cocaine Use

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2023 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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