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Polysubstance Abuse | Causes, Risk Factors, Dangers, & Treatment

Polysubstance Abuse | Causes, Risk Factors, Dangers, & Treatment

Article Contents

Substance abuse occurs when you use a drug in a manner that harms your health. For example, you might use the drug too frequently or in high amounts. 

Sometimes, substance abuse leads to polysubstance abuse. 

What Is Polysubstance Abuse?

To some people, polysubstance abuse just means abusing multiple drugs at once.

However, most clinicians will only diagnose you with polysubstance abuse if you:

  • have used at least three different substances within one year
  • don’t prefer one substance over the others
  • don’t prefer one drug class (such as stimulants or depressants) over another

Polysubstance abuse often involves illicit drugs. It can also involve prescription drugs that aren’t taken in a manner prescribed by a doctor. 

The most common drugs involved in polysubstance abuse include:

  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • marijuana
  • opiates
  • benzodiazepines
  • amphetamines
  • hallucinogens
  • inhalants

What Causes Polysubstance Abuse?

Polysubstance abuse can occur accidentally. For example, someone taking a prescription antidepressant may drink alcohol without realizing this can cause side effects like extreme drowsiness and worsened depression.

Other times, people mix substances on purpose for a more intense “high.” For instance, some people combine benzodiazepines and opiates, which both have calming effects, to feel extremely relaxed.

In addition, some people mix drugs to counteract the negative effects of certain substances. Cocaine, for example, can prevent the sadness you might feel after drinking alcohol.

Risk Factors For Polysubstance Abuse

You’re more likely to struggle with polysubstance abuse if you:

  • already abuse a drug
  • suffer from a mental health disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia
  • frequent dance clubs, where people often mix various substances
  • started using drugs before age 18

Signs Of Polysubstance Abuse

Common signs of polysubstance abuse include:

  • avoiding friends and family members to spend more time getting and using drugs
  • losing interest in activities you once enjoyed 
  • feeling unable to stop using drugs despite wanting to
  • needing increasingly higher or more frequent doses of the drugs to feel the desired effects, which is also called “tolerance”

Polysubstance abuse can also cause polysubstance dependence. That means your body requires the drugs to function normally. If you don’t use them, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • tiredness
  • sweating
  • nausea and/or vomiting

Dangers Of Polysubstance Abuse

Depending on the substances used, polysubstance abuse can cause a variety of dangers. The most common dangers include:

Worsened Side Effects

All drugs come with side effects. When you take multiple drugs, they can interact and cause more severe effects than they’d cause by themselves.

For example, mixing alcohol and cocaine can significantly raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to cardiovascular problems. 

Similarly, mixing alcohol with Xanax (alprazolam) or another benzodiazepine can cause liver damage, serious memory impairment, and stroke.

Increased Risk Of Overdose

The more drugs you take, the higher the risk of overdose. 

In some cases, that’s because polysubstance abuse stresses your body. For example, taking two benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Ativan (lorazepam), can lower your blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate, and body temperature to the point where you lose consciousness. 

In other cases, polysubstance abuse increases the risk of overdose by cancelling out certain drug effects. For instance, stimulants like cocaine give you energy, while opioids like heroin make you feel calm and sleepy. 

If someone wants to feel energized from cocaine but has heroin in their system, they’ll need to take large amounts of cocaine in a short span of time, raising the risk of overdose. 

Common signs of overdose include:

  • changes in breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, or body temperature
  • confusion
  • chest pain
  • stomach pain
  • loss of consciousness

Call for emergency health services if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms. When left untreated, an overdose may cause death. 

Polysubstance Addiction

Over time, polysubstance abuse can lead to polysubstance addiction. Addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a serious disease. It makes you feel unable to stop using substances despite negative consequences. 

Polysubstance Abuse Treatment Options

Although polysubstance abuse is typically more dangerous than single drug abuse, it’s treatable.

In most cases, treatment starts with medical detox, in which health care professionals help you gradually stop using drugs. They’ll closely monitor your health and may prescribe medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. 

After you complete detox, you should attend a substance abuse treatment program. These programs are available on an outpatient or inpatient basis. 

In an outpatient program, you’ll regularly attend a treatment center while living at home. In an inpatient program, you’ll live at a treatment center and receive 24/7 care.

Because polysubstance abuse can be difficult to treat, you’ll probably need inpatient care. 

When you enter treatment, your doctors will design a personalized treatment plan. Depending on your needs, it may include services such as:

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

If you struggle with alcohol, opioids, or nicotine, your doctors can prescribe medications to make recovery easier. Common medications used in MAT include:

  • methadone and buprenorphine, which can reduce cravings for opioids
  • acamprosate, which can reduce cravings for alcohol 
  • bupropion and varenicline, which can reduce cravings for nicotine 
  • naltrexone, which can discourage the use of alcohol and opioids by blocking their effects

Therapy

In therapy, you can develop important coping skills to prevent relapse. You can also manage underlying mental health issues that contribute to your drug use. Common types of therapy for polysubstance abuse include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy, where you can identify triggers for drug use and change unhealthy behaviors 
  • group therapy, where you can connect with other people who are recovering from drug abuse and addiction
  • motivational interviewing, where you can strengthen your motivation to maintain recovery

Aftercare Planning

Before you finish treatment, you can work with your doctors to create a personalized aftercare plan. These plans often include ongoing therapy, support groups, and wellness activities like meditation and journaling. When you follow your plan, you’re less likely to relapse.   

If you or a loved one struggles with polysubstance abuse, please reach out to a Recovering Champions specialist to learn about our treatment options.

Written by Recovering Champions Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Edith Cowan University Western Australia - Polydrug use
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Alcohol Abuse Makes Prescription Drug Abuse More Likely
National Library of Medicine - Polysubstance use: diagnostic challenges, patterns of use and health

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