Can Cocaine Make Your Ears Rot?

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 05.14.15
  • NOVA

Cocaine is being mixed with a dangerous drug called levamisole that can destroy white blood cells and kill your skin—especially your earlobes. Learn more in this episode of Gross Science.

Running Time: 02:32


Can Cocaine Make Your Ears Rot?

Posted: May 14, 2015

Just in case you needed another reason not to do drugs, cocaine is now being mixed with something that can make your skin rot (especially your ear lobes.)

I’m Anna Rothschild and this is Gross Science.

Illegal drugs are often cut, or mixed, with other substances. This is usually done to increase profits for the traffickers—allowing them to make the same amount of money while giving away less of the pure product. Cocaine has been mixed with lots of different things. Everything from powdered caffeine to white flour. But today, it’s being cut with something totally disgusting: a deworming drug, called levamisole.

Levamisole was first developed as a prescription drug in the 1960’s, and was used to treat different types of worm infections in both humans and livestock. And it worked really well. In the 70s doctors actually started using it to treat inflammatory diseases and certain types of cancer, too. And that’s when they discovered that some patients treated with levamisole had pretty serious side effects.

The drug destroyed the patients’ white blood cells, making them susceptible to dangerous bacterial infections. But that’s not all. Some patients’ skin started dying. When tissue or organs start dying it’s called “necrosis,” and it especially affected the ears of people on levamisole.

The drug has since been banned from use in humans (but not in livestock) in the US and Canada. But recently it’s started making a cocaine. In 2009, authorities estimated that it was in about 69% of the cocaine seized in the US. And people who’ve done cocaine are coming into emergency rooms showing levamisole’s side effects.

Now, no one is quite sure why producers are adding levamisole to cocaine. It’s actually way more expensive than most of the stuff people usually mix with it. One idea is that it looks like cocaine, and acts a bit like a stimulant, so it’s easy to fool buyers into thinking they’ve gotten a pure product. Also, there’s some research indicating that it might increase the addictiveness of cocaine—though that was just one study, and it wasn’t done in humans.

Honestly, levamisole is not the only reason to stay away from coke. Cocaine is one of the most common causes of heart attacks in young people, and it can happen to first time users. But if that’s not enough to make you think twice, maybe the thought of rotting earlobes will.




Host, Writer, Animator, Editor
Anna Rothschild
DP, Sound, Intern Extraordinaire
Rachel Becker
Many thanks to Dr. Alexandre Larocque.
Pandora’s Box
Music Provided by APM


Effects of Levamisole on Skin
Photos courtesy of Henry Ford Hospital


(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Nature/sheep bleat outdoors
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios


(main image: Cocaine/I'm in control...of the tones)


Want more info?

Larocque, A., & Hoffman, R.S. (2012) Levamisole in cocaine: Unexpected news from an old acquaintance. Clinical Tocicology, 50(4), 231-241.

The Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine by Brendon Kiley—The Stranger

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