Snorting cocaine: “In some cases, we have no alternative but to amputate”

Flemish ENT (Ear Nose and Throat) specialists have noted a sharp rise in the number of patients  presenting with complaints following cocaine use.  The drug is often snorted.  This can lead to holes in the partition or septum between drug users’ nostrils.  If used often the drug can result in the atrophy of parts of the nose and in extreme cases to nose amputation.

ENT doctor Prof Peter Hellings (Leuven University Hospital): “Twenty years ago we hardly saw any cases.  Today we see several patients a week”.

Dr Hellings believes nose complaints have risen sharply as a result of cocaine use.  Exact figures are not available, but at Ghent University Hospital they tell the same story.  “In recent years every week we’ve been seeing patients with perforations in the nostrils.  We believe that in two-thirds of cases this is caused by cocaine” says Prof Thibaut Van Zele. 

International research shows that 5% of cocaine users eventually experience perforation issues. 

“Cocaine is a substance that leads to a strong contraction of the blood vessels.  The partition or septum between the nostrils is vulnerable to reduced flow of blood.  It can start to atrophy after a couple of snorts of cocaine resulting in perforations” says Prof Van Zele.

Nose complaints vary: a blocked nose, nose bleeds and extremely painful infections.  Improvement can only be achieved by halting use of the drug.  “There’s little we can do with medication.  Only reducing your cocaine use will lead to less pain” says Prof Van Zele.

“If patients stop snorting cocaine, after a few months or a year we can see if we can close the perforations with tissue from the nose or a prosthesis.  It’s not always possible and depends on the size of the perforation”.

Kicking a habit is difficult and there’s always the danger of a relapse.  “Complaints go from bad to worse and damage becomes irreparable” says Prof Hellings.

”At the end of the day nose tissue and cartilage starts to atrophy to such a degree it becomes visible on the exterior.  There are patients who snort away the tip of their nose.  In some cases, we have no alternative but to amputate”.

ENT doctors stress the ramifications of snorting cocaine shouldn’t be underestimated.  “Our impression is that this group is getting bigger every year and includes people from all walks of life” the experts say.

Top stories