Crack Lung

Estimated reading time: 21 minute(s)

Introduced to the world during the 1970s, crack cocaine has rapidly become a popular drug for recreational use. This increased prevalence may be due to its greater availability, as crack includes a synthetic blend of cocaine, which is much easier to access. Moreover, crack also remains easier for people to manufacture and even purchase. Unfortunately, this easy accessibility and strong effects have made crack cocaine one of today’s most commonly abused drugs. Its use can lead to many short- and long-term side effects, including respiratory troubles.

Today, experts consider smoking crack cocaine the easiest way to develop a dangerous respiratory condition known as crack lung. While cocaine in any form can be highly addictive and destructive, crack cocaine has a particularly low threshold for addiction, which means it leads to more significant risks and complications. Each year, almost 5.9 million people within the United States use cocaine, out of which 1.4 million prefer using crack cocaine.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of crack lung due to smoking crack cocaine is rising. [1] Due to a lack of awareness, many cases go unreported, resulting in irreversible damage and potential mortality. Educating yourself about this respiratory issue, especially if you or a loved one is using crack cocaine, is imperative to save a life.

What Is Crack Lung? An Overview

Experts use the term “crack lung” to define all injuries to the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system triggered by smoking crack cocaine. The term signifies an acute pulmonary disease that may occur acutely within 48 hours of using crack cocaine or gradually after prolonged use. Remember that the pulmonary system that crack cocaine affects includes the airways, lungs, heart, veins, blood vessels, and arteries.

Crack cocaine affects many people worldwide, including prominent celebrities like Amy Winehouse. The singer had publicly announced how her drug use was complicating her lung health. Unfortunately, Winehouse died soon after due to her polysubstance drug abuse.

Crack lung triggers symptoms similar to pneumonia or emphysema, including cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath. [2] As crack cocaine starts inflaming and irritating the lung tissue, crack lung quickly complicates, leading to respiratory failure and even death. Once the lung tissue develops scar, most healthcare professionals consider it irreparable. Hence, treating crack lung has a very narrow window of time to avoid permanent damage and mortality.

Crack Lung Symptoms to Look For

The symptoms of crack lung may appear quickly in people using large amounts of this substance in a shorter period. Long-term users are also at risk of developing this condition. Additionally, people with pre-existing lung diseases, such as asthma, are more likely to develop crack lungs and experience complications.

Hence, it is imperative for the populations mentioned above to get a faster diagnosis so that treatment can begin in time. For this purpose, look out for the following signs and symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Phlegm
  • High blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea

Call the local emergency helpline as soon as possible if you or someone who uses crack cocaine develops the symptoms mentioned above. In some cases, the damage due to crack lung may become permanent in less than 48 hours following the onset of symptoms.

Diagnosing Crack Lung

If you believe using crack cocaine has led to lung injury or crack lung, get an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. While there is no specific test to diagnose this condition, experts may use the following ways:

  • Symptoms: Experts may ask patients to describe their symptoms while looking for chest pain, shortness of breath, fever, and cough.
  • Physical Exam: Sometimes, a doctor may pick up specific clinical findings suggesting inflammation of the lungs, especially if there is a fluid buildup in the lungs.
  • Imaging Tests: Various imaging modalities, such as computed tomography, X-ray, and chest radiographs, can pick up inflammation and confirm fluid buildup in the lungs.
  • Blood tests: Certain tests may show inflammation, infection, or organ damage.

If you suspect to be suffering from signs of a crack lung, it is imperative to see a healthcare professional immediately. While it is a severe condition, crack lung can be treated with immediate medical care. If a doctor suspects crack lung, they may request the following:

  • Urine toxicology: This test detects the presence of crack cocaine in urine to confirm if a person is using it.
  • Bronchoscopy: This test helps a doctor get a better look at the airways and take a sample of the lung tissues.

Treating Crack Lung and Cocaine Addiction

Treatment for crack lung usually involves supportive measures depending on the type of pulmonary toxicity a person is experiencing. Some standard supportive measures may include corticosteroids and supplemental oxygen. While supportive treatment can help people overcome their acute issues, the problem is likely to return, especially if people continue consuming crack cocaine again. Hence, a large part of treatment involves focusing on the underlying addiction and trying to break the cycle to maintain a healthy, drug-free life.

Many rehabs currently offer help and support to people abusing crack cocaine or any other form of this drug. The programs run in different settings, including inpatient and outpatient environments, depending on variable client needs. The treatment programs may include the following recovery-focused services, such as the following:

  • Medical Detox: This step helps patients safely and gradually stop using crack cocaine without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
  • Individual and Family Therapy: These therapies can help patients and their loved ones learn how to support each other to break the underlying addiction.
  • Peer Support Groups: These groups provide a platform to share personal experiences with people with similar struggles. These sessions allow patients with crack lungs to share and overcome their problems.


How to get rid of crack lung?

Treatment for crack lung varies depending on various factors, such as duration of use, daily dosage, and severity of lung damage. Experts may sometimes prescribe antiviral, antibiotic, or other medicines to treat any underlying or superimposed infections. Additionally, some people may need supportive measures, such as oxygen therapy and mechanical ventilation.

How long does crack lung last, and what is the prognosis?

The duration of crack lung and the disease prognosis can vary depending on the severity of lung damage and how early it is reported. The prognosis is much better for people who get a diagnosis and seek treatment early on. Delaying matters can complicate the matter, sometimes even leading to death.

What does smoking crack do to your lungs?

Some possible complications occurring due to crack cocaine and crack lung include the following:

  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Blocked arteries
  • Blood in the lungs
  • Scarred lung tissue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Damaged esophagus and trachea
  • Higher risk of tuberculosis
  • Air escaping the lungs into the chest cavity
  • Worsened asthma
  • Lung tissue death
  • Respiratory failure
  • Collapsed lung
  • Coma/ Death

Does smoking crack cause pneumonia?

There have been multiple reports where smoking crack cocaine has been linked with the development of pneumonia due to its detrimental effects on the lung system. However, the risk may vary from one person to another.


1 Dolapsakis C, Katsandri A. Crack lung: A case of acute pulmonary cocaine toxicity. Lung India. 2019 Jul 1;36(4):370-1.

2 Giacomi FD, Srivali N. Cocaine use and crack lung syndrome. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. 2019 Feb 1;112(2):125-6.

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