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LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-.

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LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet].

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Last Update: October 26, 2017.



Cocaine is a benzoid acid ester that that was originally used as a local anesthetic, but is no longer used because of its potent addictive qualities. When given in high doses systemically, cocaine has mood elevating effects that have led to its widescale abuse. High doses of cocaine can be associated with toxic reactions including hyperthermia, rhabdomyolysis, shock and acute liver injury which can be severe and even fatal.


Cocaine (koe kane') is a potent local anesthetic that appears to act by inhibition of voltage-gated sodium channels, increasing the threshold for electric excitability of nerve axons and thus decreasing neuroconduction. In the central nervous system, cocaine appears to block both norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake. High doses produce euphoria followed by withdrawal symptoms, leading to a repeated desire to restart it and great abuse potential. Chronic use is associated with irritability, paranoia, violence and drug seeking behavior. Cocaine is one of the most addictive medications known. For this reason, cocaine is listed as a Schedule I drug, indicating that it has high abuse potential and no current medical usefulness. Cocaine abuse is relatively common; an estimated 600,000 Americans regularly abuse cocaine.


Cocaine has many serious medical consequences including cardiac arrhythmias, coronary artery spasm and myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular accidents, subarachnoid hemorrhage, seizures, hallucinations, intestinal ischemia, renal infarction, rhabdomyolysis and acute liver injury. Cocaine is a not infrequent cause of sudden “unexplained” death in young adults. Hepatotoxicity usually arises hours to a few days after an acute overdose, generally following or accompanying other major organ involvement. The clinical phenotype of cocaine hepatototoxicity is usually acute hepatic necrosis. Initially, serum aminotransferase and LDH levels are markedly elevated with minimal increase in alkaline phosphatase. The prothrombin time becomes abnormal rapidly and may also reflect disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). The serum bilirubin begins to rise after 2 to 3 days. Immunoallergic features and autoantibodies are usually absent. Liver histology usually shows centrolobular (zone 3) necrosis and fatty change, features that resemble ischemic hepatitis or liver injury due to hyperthermia, factors that may partially mediate the hepatotoxic effects of cocaine. In self-limited cases, recovery is rapid and serum aminotransferase levels usually return to normal within 1 to 2 weeks.

Likelihood score: A[HD] (well known cause of acute liver injury, but only when taken as an overdose).

Mechanism of Injury

Cocaine is believed to cause liver injury by conversion to a toxic metabolite as a result of P450 metabolism. In experimental animal models, modulation of P450 activity by inducers, inhibitors or alcohol changes the relative toxicity and pattern of injury from cocaine. In humans, it is less clear whether the hepatic injury is mediated by a toxic metabolite of cocaine as opposed to the direct effects of hyperthermia, anoxia or hepatic ischemia.

Outcome and Management

The liver injury due to the cocaine is usually self-limited and resolves rapidity. However, fatal instances have been reported often due to the other major systemic effects of cocaine overdose (myocardial infarction, stroke, multiorgan failure). There is no specific therapy or antidote for acute cocaine toxicity. Infusions of N-acetylcysteine are often given because of the similarity of the injury to acetaminophen hepatotoxicity.

Drug Class: CNS Stimulants, Agents of Abuse

Other CNS Stimulants: Amphetamines, Armodafinil, Atomoxetine, Methylphenidate, Modafinil


Case 1. Acute hepatic necrosis and rhabdomyolysis after cocaine use.

[Modified from: Kanel GC, Cassidy W, Shuster L, Reynolds TB. Cocaine-induced liver cell injury: comparison of morphological features in man and in experimental models. Hepatology 1990; 11: 646-51. PubMed Citation]

A 24 year old man with bizarre behavior after cocaine use was admitted for observation in a jail ward with tachycardia (100/min), fever (100 oF) and tachypnea (30/min). Examination showed small pupils, but was otherwise normal. He had a history of snorting and “free-basing” cocaine and a previous history of injection drug use. Laboratory results showed elevations in CPK, ALT and AST. He was given intravenous hydration, but developed progressive renal failure and was started on dialysis. His liver tests progressively worsened (Table). After three days he became confused, hypoglycemic, and had signs of progressive hepatic failure. The following day he developed respiratory failure followed by hypotension and cardiac arrest not responding to resuscitative measures. On autopsy, the liver showed midzonal and central (zones 2 and 3) coagulative necrosis, with prominent fatty change in surviving periportal hepatocytes and minimal inflammatory change with no cholestasis, fibrosis or bile duct injury.

Key Points

Medication:Cocaine (unknown amount)
Pattern:Hepatocellular (R=40)
Severity:5+ (fatal)
Latency:1 day
Other medications:None

Laboratory Values

Time After StoppingALT (U/L)CPK (U/L)Alk P (U/L)Protime*Bilirubin (mg/dL)Other
Arrest for bizarre and combative behavior after cocaine use
1 day176014,24014612%1.9
2 days>10,00046,48015%3.5Renal failure
4 days2,28028,8601949%8.7Hypoglycemia
Death from cardio-respiratory arrest
Normal <42 <170 <90 >85% <1.2

* Prothrombin activity as a precent of normal.


Cocaine is one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs of abuse. This case demonstrates the range of its medical complications, including initial bizarre and combative behavior followed by rhabdomyolysis, hepatic and renal failure, respiratory arrest and cardiovascular collapse. The pattern of liver injury was acute hepatic necrosis with rapid rise and fall of serum aminotransferase levels, little change in alkaline phosphatase and delayed rise in serum bilirubin. Typically, the prothrombin time becomes abnormal early and signs of hepatic encephalopathy can arise at the time that serum bilirubin levels are minimally elevated. Rhabdomyolysis and renal failure are also frequent and the cause of death is usually multiorgan failure rather than acute liver failure per se. Liver histology resembles that of acute ischemic hepatitis and acetaminophen poisoning.



Cocaine – No Commercial Products


Central Nervous System Stimulants


Product labeling at DailyMed, National Library of Medicine, NIH


2D chemical structure of 50-36-2


References updated: 26 October 2017

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