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 will use other drugs in combination with the drug of choice to leverage stronger effects.

When someone is suffering from addiction to or abuse of several 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 a variety of drugs, alcohol, or both before they are able to get help.

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These issues can be exacerbated in people who have been diagnosed with specific conditions. 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. There are people that 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, as well as the combination of substances that are 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 of the 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 a number of 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 exists the potential for harmful side effects from many drugs, and when drugs are used in combination with one another sometimes those harmful effects are magnified. This can mean a more powerful effect than the expected effects from all of the individual drugs. This often leads to sudden nausea and vomiting, body aches and pain, loss of equilibrium, and sudden, significant changes to both 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 a common occurrence 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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There are also some significant issues that arise from specific drug or substance combinations. Just like with 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 with the goal of reducing the negative effects of the other. Cocaine users may take an opiate to be able to sleep, for example. 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 are both substances that 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. The breathing can be slowed so significantly in some cases, that the brain becomes oxygen-deprived and can result in brain damage.
  • Methadone & Heroin: These are two specific opioids that have 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. Even though the “high” from a methadone dose has worn off it may still be present in the body, leading to a potential overdose situation if the user takes heroin during that time.

How to Get Help if Suffering From Polysubstance Abuse

Getting help for polysubstance abuse can be a far more complex affair than detox from a single drug. There can be multiple sets of substance withdrawal symptoms occurring at the same time, and in many cases, this means that there should be some supervision by medical staff or another health professional. Suddenly stopping some drugs, like benzodiazepines, can cause seizures and can 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. There are a number of highly qualified facilities that offer a variety of both 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 are suffering from polysubstance abuse, it is imperative that you seek professional help immediately before you jeopardize your health and well-being. Reach out to a friendly enrollment advisor today to get on the path to a better, more fulfilling life right now.

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens

Amanda is a prolific content writer, and is in recovery from disordered eating. She has a passion for health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and being a mother of a beautiful daughter.

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