What is Polysubstance Use?

addicted man abusing multiple substances

Polysubstance abuse is widespread among those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Polysubstance addiction is most common among teenagers and young adults, but it can affect anyone. According to the CDC, most overdose deaths in the United States involve polysubstance use. In a 2017 study, toxicology reports revealed an average of six substances in the system of people who died from prescription opioid overdoses. But what is polysubstance usage exactly, and why is it so dangerous? When a person uses more than one substance at the same time or in a short period, this is known as polysubstance or polydrug use. Any mix of legal or illegal substances, prescribed pharmaceuticals, or alcohol can fall under polysubstance drug usage. There are several reasons why people purposefully mix substances, but the majority of them fall into one of three categories:

  1. Enhance their high: Many people feel that taking multiple drugs at once will benefit them more than taking one drug alone. Taking several drugs together or with alcohol can have a cumulative impact and a more substantial buzz. This is referred to as "stacking." Stacking is when someone mixes an opioid like heroin with an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax to boost the euphoric effects of both drugs.
  2. Prolong feelings of euphoria: Maintaining your high with another drug that mirrors the effects of your first substance is one approach to make it last longer. For example, if you're high on cocaine and want to keep feeling good for longer, you could take an amphetamine, so you don't crash as rapidly and maintain feeling good for longer.
  3. Overcome Tolerance: Some people engage in polysubstance use because they have become tolerant of their original "drug of choice." Over time, people who drink excessively or use drugs to get high develop a tolerance to them. Rather than stopping drug or alcohol use, they may try adding different substances into the mix to achieve a high or buzz. If you struggle with alcohol use disorder, you might start taking other drugs to mimic the effects of drinking.

While many people combine substances to achieve a certain feeling, others may do so to counteract adverse side effects. Someone suffering from an alcohol hangover, for example, could take an antihistamine like Benadryl to alleviate their symptoms. Not everyone who engages in polysubstance use does so recreationally. Some people try to self-medicate by combining unsafe medications. There are warnings on many prescription drugs concerning mixing them with other drugs or alcohol. Individuals using prescribed drugs should speak with their doctor about the hazards of blending pharmaceuticals or drinking alcohol while taking prescription medication.

While some people purposefully combine substances, others may unintentionally practice polysubstance drug use. Drugs obtained on the street are frequently tainted or cut with additional substances. In a 2022 study, 99.8% of 5,647 street drug samples were contaminated with another drug, most commonly caffeine or marijuana. Many users may not be aware that they are swallowing various chemicals. Unfortunately, the risks of becoming addicted or overdosing are the same whether you use drugs recreationally, self-medicate, or mix drugs inadvertently.

Impact of Polysubstance Use Disorder

When a person uses several drugs at the same time, they increase their risk of adverse consequences. While sometimes these consequences are simply uncomfortable or frustrating, they can be dangerous or even fatal. This is especially true if the combined substances are used in large amounts or over a long time. When you take more than one drug at a time, your body has to process all of them. This can increase the chances that you will overdose or have a bad reaction.

Why is using multiple substances at the same time so dangerous? While each substance carries its own set of risks, it can be challenging to determine how much of each substance you've ingested and which substance is having an unfavorable impact when they're mixed. It's difficult to predict what effect drugs and alcohol will have when combined, but there's a good chance it'll be more potent and lethal.

Combining drugs can be especially problematic with stimulants and depressants, which have opposing effects on the body. For example, cocaine is a stimulant that increases heart rate and blood flow, while alcohol is a depressant that slows down these processes. Combining these two substances heightens the risk of heart attack, stroke, and respiratory failure.

Using multiple substances at once also makes withdrawing more complicated. Withdrawal puts your body in a very vulnerable state. Withdrawing from multiple drugs and alcohol at once increases the risk of seizure and memory loss and can even lead to permanent brain damage.

When you mix drugs, you increase your chances of becoming addicted to several substances. In many places in the United States, addiction is a persistent problem, and polysubstance use is one way that addiction can begin and progress.

While substance use is never a good idea, some drug combinations are particularly dangerous. Each substance affects the body and mind differently, so when you add in another one, there's no way of knowing how it will react. Here are some of the most common substance combinations that could lead to serious health risks or death:

Mixing Heroin and Cocaine

Mixing heroin with cocaine (also known as a “speedball”) is a potentially lethal combination. Cocaine and heroin are two very different drugs. The first stimulates the brain, while the second relaxes it. When coupled together, they can cause heart attacks, stop your breathing, and even kill you.

Combining Ecstasy (MDMA) and Alcohol

These substances cause dehydration and perspiration, so mixing them together can increase the likelihood of becoming seriously dehydrated. Alcohol also inhibits the breakdown of the drug in your body, leading to higher levels of ecstasy in your bloodstream. This can increase both the positive and negative effects of ecstasy, like hallucinations and nausea.

Using Depressants with Hallucinogens

Depressants, such as the benzodiazepines Xanax or Valium, depress the central nervous system (CNS), making you feel calm and relaxed and lowering your inhibitions. When you put a depressant drug and a psychedelic drug, like Ketamine, into your body at the same time, they compete for the central nervous system's attention and can slow down your breathing and heart rates. By combining these two drugs, you're increasing your risk of severe health problems and even death.

Alcohol and Benzodiazepines

Combining the two is a recipe for disaster because alcohol and benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system. If you have used benzodiazepines to help you sleep or treat anxiety, you are especially at risk of complications. Alcohol helps you sleep, but you may experience withdrawal symptoms like shaking and sweating when it wears off. Combining these two substances is the last thing you should do.

These are just a few examples of the many possible substance combinations that may cause adverse reactions. Often, people do not know what substances they have consumed or what will happen when they combine them.

Treatment for Polydrug Abuse

Although polysubstance misuse and addiction are harmful, they are treatable. Detox, the first step in treatment, is a period of safe withdrawal from drugs and alcohol. Dealing with multiple substances complicates detoxification, so it's critical that it's done safely and under medical supervision. At Lake Avenue Recovery, we have excellent working relationships with various Massachusetts detox programs that will safely lead you through the detox and withdrawal process. Your detox team may use medication to help make withdrawal more comfortable or treat any co-occurring mental health disorder.

If you or a loved one are struggling with polydrug abuse, seek help today.

Although withdrawal from polysubstance misuse is not a cure, it can provide the groundwork for long-term recovery. Following detox, it is critical to form a recovery plan. Lake Avenue Recovery believes in treating each person individually. We can assist you in creating a personalized rehabilitation plan that will put you on the right track and keep you away from drugs and alcohol. Many treatment centers, including ours, have specialized programs to assist patients in detoxing and recovering from substance use disorders involving multiple substances. A good treatment program will address the person's physical and mental health needs and any co-occurring conditions.

Begin your recovery journey now by reaching out for support today: (855) 921-5280

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