Polysubstance abuse is taking more than one substance at a time in an abuse situation. The most common reason this is done is to get a stronger feeling from the effects of the drugs. In most cases, the user will have their drug of choice and use other drugs in combination with the drug of choice to leverage stronger effects.

When someone is suffering from addiction to or abuse of different recreational, illegal, or prescription drugs, they are said to be suffering from “polysubstance abuse” or “polydrug abuse.” This is a very common condition in people who experience mental health conditions. Individuals with diagnosed mental health issues will frequently self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or both before getting help.

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These issues can be exacerbated in people who have been diagnosed with specific conditions. For example, people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychoses are particularly vulnerable to using drugs and using them in a polysubstance abuse situation. 

Sometimes people mix recreational drugs to enhance the properties of either or both of the individual substances. Some people mix substances to reduce or eliminate undesirable effects from either or both drugs. The specifics of each case will depend on the user’s circumstances and preferences and the combination of substances taken.

This drug mixing behavior can have some unintended negative consequences as well. There can be an elevation of adverse effects from some of the combinations, just as there are consequences that can be unpredictable. Many unpredictable effects will result from an individual user’s biology or metabolism and how it processes the drugs in the system.

Side Effects of Polysubstance Abuse

There are many side-effects of polysubstance abuse, both general effects and effects resulting from specific drug combinations. Some of the general dangers that may be encountered during polysubstance abuse include:

  • Increased Side Effect Strength: There is a potential for harmful side effects from many drugs, and when drugs are used in combination, those harmful effects are magnified. This can mean a more powerful effect than the expected effects of all individual drugs. This often leads to sudden nausea and vomiting, body aches and pain, loss of equilibrium, and sudden changes to heart rate and respiration.
  • Overdose: Overdose will always be a possible outcome when illicit drugs are abused, but when drugs are combined, it can be much more likely. This happens because many substances mask the effects of other drugs that help guide dosage. One drug may be masking another, causing the user to take more than intended. This is common in users who have become addicted to benzodiazepines and begin mixing them with alcohol, stimulants, or other central nervous system depressants. 
  • Complications From Competing Mental Health Conditions: Individuals that suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders are more likely to experience polysubstance abuse if they develop an initial substance abuse problem. In cases like these, the substance abuse problem will often worsen any existing substance abuse problem.
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Some significant issues arise from specific drug or substance combinations. For example, like any other substance, alcohol is very commonly combined with other legal or illegal substances to get a stronger or better intoxication experience.

Some of these combinations include:

  • Alcohol & Cocaine: This is a very common combination used by people looking to amplify the effects of the cocaine taken. The alcohol causes the amount of cocaine that remains in the blood to increase by about one-third and can cause some cardiovascular issues in the user. This combination can also cause the user to consume more alcohol than intended because cocaine can significantly mask the effects of the alcohol.
  • Cocaine & Opioids: These two drug opposites are often taken to reduce the negative effects of the other. Cocaine users may take an opiate to be able to sleep, for example. Unfortunately, with the competing effects of these substances, overdoses are very common, and the potential for deadly complications is much higher. Particularly if the user has taken a significant amount of both drugs, there may be an overdose if the user has taken a significant dose of the opiates and the cocaine then wears off.
  • Benzodiazepines & Opioids: Since these substances depress the central nervous system, combining these substances can quickly lead to serious risks. Using both can result in respiratory depression that can be potentially fatal. In addition, breathing can be slowed so significantly in some cases that the brain becomes oxygen-deprived, leading to brain damage.
  • Methadone & Heroin: These are two specific opioids with very different half-lives in the body. Methadone has a very long half-life, meaning it stays in the body for a long time, while heroin has a short half-life, so it is processed and wears off relatively quickly. Therefore, even though the “high” from a methadone dose has worn off, it may still be present in the body, leading to a potential overdose if the user takes heroin during that time.

How to Get Help if Suffering From Polysubstance Abuse

Getting help for polysubstance abuse can be far more complex than detoxing from a single drug. There can be multiple sets of substance withdrawal symptoms occurring at the same time. In many cases, this means that there should be some supervision by medical staff or another health professional. In addition, suddenly stopping some drugs, like benzodiazepines, can cause seizures and even be fatal if stopped “cold turkey.”

If you, someone you love, or even a close friend is suffering from polysubstance abuse, it is important to reach out for professional help. Many highly qualified facilities offer various inpatient and outpatient treatment options. They will help build effective strategies for maintaining sobriety through stressors and triggers, helping ensure long-term health.

If you suffer from polysubstance abuse, you must seek professional help immediately before jeopardizing your health and well-being. So get in touch with our friendly enrollment advisors today to get on the path to a better, more fulfilling life. 


Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

  1. Gans S. What Are the Risks of Substance Use? Verywell Mind. Published February 19, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2022. https://www.verywellmind.com/substance-use-4014640
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed June 27, 2022

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