Polysubstance abuse refers to the abuse of multiple drugs, including illicit drugs, alcohol, and nonmedical use of prescription medications.
According to the most recent national data, an estimated 20.8 million people in the U.S. ages 12 and older have a substance use disorder, with the most common drugs of abuse being alcohol, illicit use of marijuana, and prescription pain relievers.
The reasons people abuse drugs and alcohol can be complex. Most reasons can be traced back to biological, environmental, and personal factors that are unique to each person’s individual circumstances.
Understanding the risks and dangers of polysubstance abuse is of vital importance for any person or loved one of someone with a current or past history of substance abuse. Recovery from polysubstance abuse is possible and may require inpatient treatment within a rehab center.
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Why Do People Abuse Multiple Drugs?
There is no single cause experts can point to in order to explain why people abuse drugs and alcohol. In most cases, it is the combined influence of several factors that can lead to substance abuse, although this may not always be obvious to the person struggling.
Common triggers and risk factors for people with substance abuse problems include:
- family history of substance abuse
- early exposure to drugs and alcohol
- biological factors
- mental health problems
Risk factors alone may not explain what causes a person to abuse multiple drugs as opposed to just one.
While many factors can contribute to polysubstance abuse, there are also several distinct reasons that can draw a person to multiple substances.
Possible reasons to explain why people abuse multiple substances include:
- Effects: Taking doses of multiple drugs can lead to more intense effects than taking one drug. Achieving a more powerful high can be a motivation for mixing substances.
- Tolerance: Regular abuse of a drug can cause the body to develop a tolerance to it, requiring higher doses to feel the desired effects. People who develop a high tolerance for one drug may turn to other drugs in an effort to bypass their current tolerance level.
- Counteracting Effects: Drugs are often used in an effort to counteract or cancel the negative effects of other drugs. An example is taking heroin (a depressant) and cocaine (a stimulant), a combination casually referred to as “speedball”.
- Different High: Taking multiple drugs can also be an attempt to achieve a high that is different from that of single-drug use. People who become addicted to the euphoric effects of a drug may become eager to seek new experiences.
Common Polysubstance Abuse Combinations
Any number of drugs can be combined to achieve certain effects, depending on a person’s intentions or what substances they have access to. However, some combinations are more common than others.
Common drug abuse combinations in the United States that require treatment include:
- alcohol and benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax, Valium, Klonopin)
- alcohol and opioids
- opioids and benzodiazepines
- barbiturates and stimulants (e.g. cocaine, amphetamines)
- heroin and cocaine
- multiple opioids
Risks And Dangers Of Polysubstance Abuse
Abusing any drug— including those available by prescription— risks unexpected side effects and consequences to health. However, abuse of multiple drugs can further increase this risk, especially when used in high doses.
Major risks of polysubstance abuse include:
- physical dependence
- organ damage
- negative effects on mental health
- effects on cognitive ability
- physical health complications
Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to their chronic drug use. This can happen in people who take some prescription medications over a long period of time, as well as those who abuse or become addicted to substances.
Developing a dependence on drugs and alcohol can make it more difficult to stop or even reduce doses. It can also lead to symptoms of withdrawal, which can become highly uncomfortable and even life-threatening, in some cases, without professional medical support.
Mixing certain drugs can increase the likelihood of suffering from lasting organ damage. Liver damage, for instance, is a high risk for people who regularly mix alcohol and any drug that contains acetaminophen (e.g. Percocet, Tylenol).
Other vital organs such as the heart, kidneys, and lungs can also be negatively affected by heavy drug and alcohol use. For people with preexisting health concerns, these effects may be even greater and require specialized medical treatment.
Negative Effects On Mental Health
Many drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and heavy alcohol use are linked to worsened symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. The reason for this can largely be traced back to how drugs and alcohol affect the brain.
Taking excessive amounts of drugs, or mixing them, can cause changes to areas of the brain that regulate emotions, judgment, and mood, among other things.
There is strong evidence that substance abuse can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, hostile behavior, drastic mood swings, and other concerning effects which can make people unrecognizable even to their loved ones.
While many drug-induced symptoms of mental illness can get better once a person has become sober, polysubstance abuse can also risk long-term brain damage.
For people who have mental health problems independent of their drug use, recovery may be more complex and require a more intensive treatment process.
Cognitive And Physical Health Problems Due To Polysubstance Abuse
Several physical and cognitive health problems can develop as a result of polysubstance abuse.n The severity and nature of these effects may vary based on a person’s age, the duration of their substance abuse, types of drugs taken, and other factors.
Physical health consequences may include:
- irregular heartbeat
- heart disease
- increased risk for several cancers (particularly with alcohol)
- liver disease
- respiratory problems
- high blood pressure
- weakened immune system
Cognitive health issues that can result from polysubstance abuse:
- impaired memory
- poor judgment
- cloudy thinking
- inability to concentrate
Overdose Due To Polysubstance Abuse
Overdose is a reaction in the body that occurs when a person takes too much of one or more drugs at once, resulting in negative physical and mental symptoms. In severe cases, this can become life-threatening.
Polysubstance abuse is a huge risk factor for overdose deaths. Mixing drugs, such as alcohol and opioids, can overwhelm the body much quicker than taking one alone.
According to recent data on drug overdoses, about 30 percent of opioid overdoses, which make up the majority of U.S. drug overdoses, also involved benzodiazepines, which are another type of sedative.
Rates of overdoses involving antidepressants are also mostly driven by the simultaneous use of opioids.
The primary causes of death in overdoses are stopped breathing (respiratory depression) and heart complications. Taking multiple drugs can also sometimes mask symptoms of overdose, increasing the risk of fatal outcomes.
If someone has become unresponsive, stopped breathing, or started seizing after taking one or multiple drugs, call 9-1-1 right away.
How Polysubstance Abuse Can Lead To Addiction
Substance abuse differs from addiction in that not everyone who abuses one or more drugs is addicted to them.
People who abuse drugs may do so on an infrequent basis, whereas someone with an addiction will likely require one or multiple doses a day to stave off symptoms of withdrawal.
Abusing drugs can often lead to addiction, however. Taking high doses of drugs can alter the way they interact with the brain. This can create a strong urge to continue using drugs and make it difficult for a person to stop.
Over time, the repeated misuse of drugs can cause the body to develop physical dependence, resulting in withdrawal symptoms within a few hours after a person’s last dose.
Addiction occurs when a person becomes physically or psychologically unable to reduce or stop their drug use. This can require more intensive treatment that is best provided within an inpatient rehab center.
Treatment For Polysubstance Abuse And Addiction
Treatment for polysubstance abuse requires an individualized approach that takes into account all the ways a person’s drug or alcohol use has affected their health. This can include the impact on mental and emotional wellbeing.
A common course of treatment for polysubstance abuse includes the following:
- Medical detoxification: Entering a detox program is a common first step for people overcoming addiction to one or more substances. Medical detox programs provide a safe and supervised setting for the removal of all harmful substances from a person’s body.
Detox should not be attempted alone. This can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms and is more likely to lead to relapse.
- Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and therapies targeting personal motivation offer an effective approach to drug and alcohol abuse recovery.
This helps people identify how their substance use is linked to emotional triggers and how that affects their behavior. Through therapy, people can learn more effective ways to manage their triggers and identify motivations for recovery.
- Medications: Chronic polysubstance abuse can result in a number of symptoms and issues that can take time to subside.
Medications help alleviate these symptoms and reduce discomfort. This helps prevent relapse and serves as a useful aid in the treatment process. The use of medications is especially common for the treatment of opioid and alcohol abuse.
- Aftercare Support: Recovery from substance abuse and addiction can be a long-term process. For people who enter an inpatient rehab program, part of their treatment will involve setting up a support system outside the rehab center for long-term care.
This can include finding an outpatient counselor, as well as community support groups to help you remain sober one day at a time.
At Swift River, we offer comprehensive treatment programs for people overcoming addictions to multiple substances.
As part of our compassionate and individualized approach, Swift River’s treatment specialists are able to determine an appropriate treatment plan for each person based on their physical, mental, and emotional needs.
This includes special considerations for patients who are pregnant, have co-occurring mental health issues, or come to us with a history of trauma.
Recovery is possible. Let us help you or a family member begin the path today towards a more hopeful future. Contact us to learn more about polysubstance abuse and addiction treatment at Swift River.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Benzodiazepines and Opioids
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Results