COMMENTARY | The lifeless body of the most talented vocalist in the 20th century was discovered on a Saturday afternoon by her hairdresser, sprawled face down under water like a washcloth. Whitney Houston died taking a bath in her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. What went wrong? How do you die at age 48 taking a bath?
Details in the initial coroner’s report, released days later, suggested one possible explanation: Hyperthermia. The condition is one of the most recognized complications of cocaine abuse, as researchers noted in their 2002 report, “Body Heat Management in People Using Cocaine,” found in the Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 136, pp. 785-791).
“Cocaine abuse can kill people by increasing body temperature to fatal levels,” they wrote. “Cocaine use, even at low doses, causes increased heat production, decreased ability to sense excessive heat, and decreased ability to cool down.”
The potentially fatal condition is nothing to shrug off. But many coke customers have found this complication easy to self-treat in the comfort of their own home, or hotel room, as the case may be. A long, leisurely soak in cold water lowers body temperature quickly and effectively, enough to get a thermometer reading that will save your life even as it sends shivers up your spine — usually.
Of course, sometimes this doesn’t work. And things go wrong. Which is what may have happened on that fateful Saturday, when rehab regular Whitney Houston was discovered submerged in the bathtub of her hotel suite. TMZ promptly posted photos of the “death tub” the beautiful singer died in. If heart arrhythmia turns out to be the coroner’s conclusion, that would be why.
What happens to the brain on cocaine? Why would a coke user overheat to the point of no return?
As many of us know from high school health class, cocaine molecules mimic endorphins, the cozy, charismatic chemicals made in the brain that trigger euphoria. In one study, researchers who injected endorphins straight into the hypothalamus of rats recorded a steady, nonstop rise in body temperature.
When the human brain is exposed to cocaine, it’s just like endorphins were being injected straight into the nucleus accumbens, throwing off the coke-head’s thermostat. And that can be life threatening.
People experiencing heat stroke face the same high risk for arrhythmia. The discomfort — mild as it may be to an addict, since coke users can’t actually tell they’re hurting themselves — calls for swift action. The easiest thing to do is to draw a cold bath, and jump into the tub.
Drowning was initially ruled out in Whitney Houston’s case. No fluid of significance was found in the dead singer’s lungs. Pills found at the scene were not enough to be lethal. Coke kills.
Another famous coke user who died in the bathtub: Jim Morrison of the Doors. A French coroner back then listed “natural causes” as the cause. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.