Ear, nose and throat doctors are seeing a striking increase in the number of patients with severe nasal complaints due to cocaine use in Belgium. Cocaine is usually snorted and can, among other things, lead to cavities in the nasal septum. With prolonged and frequent use, parts of the nose can also die, and in extreme cases a nasal amputation has to be carried out.
"Twenty years ago, we hardly saw any cases in our hospital, now we have several patients every week." Peter Hellings, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the University Hospital Leuven, told VRT. “The number of patients with nose problems due to cocaine use has increased enormously.”
There are no hard figures, but the same reports are coming out of hospitals like UZ Gent. "In recent years, we have seen patients with a perforation in the nasal septum every week," Professor Thibaut Van Zele from UZ Gent told VRT. "In two out of three patients, we suspect that this is a result of cocaine use."
International research shows that five percent of cocaine users sooner or later suffer from cavities in the septum of the nose. "Cocaine is a drug that causes the blood vessels to contract very strongly and the nasal septum is very sensitive to reduced blood flow," Professor Van Zele. "That is why the nasal structure, after using cocaine a few times, can begin to die, causing perforations."
The nasal complaints can range from a stuffy nose and nosebleeds to very painful inflammations. The only thing that helps is rehab. "We can't do much with medication. Only actively stopping cocaine will lead to less pain."
"If the patient stops using, we can see after a few months to a year whether we can close the perforations in the nasal septum with available tissue from the nose or a prosthesis," Professor Van Zele added. "But this is not always possible.”
But rehab is often difficult and the risk of relapse is high. "The complaints are becoming more and more serious, resulting in irreparable damage," said Professor Hellings.
"Eventually, the nasal tissue and cartilage also begin to die, to the extent that it becomes visible even on the outside. There are patients who literally 'sniff out' their entire nose tip. It happens that in the end we have no choice but to amputate the nose, although that remains quite rare."
Ear, nose and throat doctors emphasise that the consequences of cocaine use should not be underestimated. "We still have the strong impression that the patient group is getting bigger year after year and in all layers of the population."