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Is a novocaine related to cocaine?

By John Swain
September 7, 2009

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The anesthetic I get at the dentist ends in “-caine.’’ Is it related to cocaine?

Aside from the letters at the ends of their names, the substances could hardly be more different.

Cocaine is a naturally occurring substance that can also be synthesized in a laboratory, but the process is far from trivial and certainly not very economical. It can be used as a local anesthetic, but its side effects and high potential for addiction set off a search for something safer and better.

Novocaine, which dentists use, has a name derived from a combination of “novo,’’ for new, and the ending of cocaine. Also called procaine, it is chemically quite unrelated to cocaine and relatively easy to make - the first synthesis was in 1898. It doesn’t have any euphoric or addictive effects, so there is no potential for abuse, but it is a good local anesthetic - aside from the fact that it dilates blood vessels and can increase bleeding.

A similar anesthetic compound is lidocaine (also called xylocaine), first synthesized in 1943. It has less potential to cause an allergic reaction and is widely used, not only by dentists, but in gels and sprays for skin and mouth pain. Benzocaine, another similar chemical, has even been used in condoms made to help avoid premature ejaculation.

Dr. Knowledge is written by Northeastern University physicist John Swain. E-mail questions to drknowledge@globe.com or write to Dr. Knowledge, c/o The Boston Globe, PO Box 55819, Boston, MA 02205-5819.