Polysubstance drug abuse or addiction is a term that refers to abusing of more than one substance simultaneously. Polysubstance abuse can refer to the combination of alcohol with other drugs, including prescription medications. It can also refer to a situation where a person combines one substance with another to increase the effects of each or using one substance to counteract the effects of another.
There are significant risks to combining drugs, including alcohol with prescription or illicit drugs. Doing so raises the risk of becoming addicted to multiple substances, making treatment more complex. Drug and alcohol addiction or abuse can also lead to more severe side effects of the substances and can increase the likelihood of an overdose.
The Relationship Between Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Scientists recognize the link between excessive alcohol use and drug abuse. Also, people who abuse alcohol and drugs are more likely to have a severe dependence disorder, compared to people abusing only one substance. People who have alcohol use disorders along with other drug use disorders are more likely to have co-occurring psychiatric disorders as well.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people under the age of 25 are especially vulnerable to dual substance abuse. Additionally, men and women with an alcohol use disorder are 18 times more likely to say they use prescription drugs nonmedically as opposed to people who don’t drink any alcohol.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that people dependent on alcohol are more likely to abuse drugs: of 248 people addicted to alcohol and seeking treatment, who were surveyed by the department, 64% met the criteria for a drug addiction disorder at some point in their lives.
Common Drugs Mixed with Alcohol
It’s possible that people may combine prescription drugs with alcohol without realizing the potential risks. There are also situations where alcohol is used with illicit drugs or nonmedical prescription drugs intentionally. Regardless of whether the combination is intentional, mixing drugs with alcohol can pose a serious, even deadly, risk.
Alcohol and Cocaine
The combination of alcohol and cocaine can, unfortunately, be a common one, particularly among younger people. The idea is that by using alcohol and cocaine together, one will cancel the other out. That belief is not true.
Combining cocaine and alcohol can lead to the production of a substance called cocaethylene. If there’s too much of this in the body, it increases the risk of cardiovascular-related symptoms and cardiovascular toxicity.
Alcohol and Sleeping Pills
Prescription sleeping pills are among some of the most commonly used prescription medications in the country. Most sleeping pills are sedative hypnotics. Benzodiazepines like Xanax can be classified as sleeping pills, as can newer medications such as Lunesta and Ambien, which bind to many of the same receptor sites in the brain as benzodiazepines.
If someone mixes alcohol and sleeping pills, it can increase the sedating effects of both substances. That effect can ultimately cause a person to stop breathing, resulting in death. If a person has a prescription for sleeping pills, they’ll notice that the label warns against combining them with alcohol. That person is also more likely to do dangerous things such as driving or making reckless decisions when under the influence of both alcohol and sleeping pills.
Alcohol and Ecstasy
MDMA, also known as ecstasy, is a drug commonly used at parties and concerts. It causes changes in a person’s mood and sense of perception. Ecstasy is similar to stimulants and hallucinogens. The drug increases the effects of three brain chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
If alcohol and ecstasy are used simultaneously, the risk of dehydration increases. Ecstasy raises body temperature and can make people sweat more, which can lead to dehydration. Alcohol causes people to lose fluids because of increased urination, so when these two effects come together, the risks of dehydration can be significant. The effects of alcohol and ecstasy on the nervous system can increase the risk of cardiac-related side effects such as abnormal heart rhythm or cardiac arrhythmia.
Alcohol and Heroin
Both alcohol and heroin are depressants of the central nervous system. Both substances can slow down functions the central nervous system controls, including breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. When someone uses alcohol and heroin at the same time, this central nervous system depression can cause someone to overdose and die.
Alcohol and Marijuana
When someone combines alcohol and marijuana, they’re at a greater risk of experiencing symptoms such as feeling nauseous, sweating excessively, getting the “spins” or vomiting. This process is sometimes referred to as “greening out.”
Another risk of combining alcohol and marijuana is the potential to underestimate how intoxicated a person is because of the effects of marijuana. Once high, a person could then drink more than they would otherwise, making it more likely they poison themselves or put themselves or others in danger. Marijuana also prevents vomiting, so if a person drinks alcohol and gets high, their body might be unable to get rid of the toxins by vomiting.
People who use alcohol and marijuana at the same time are more likely to experience paranoia and impaired decision-making. Related symptoms may include terror and panic attacks.
Alcohol and Painkillers
Prescription opioid painkillers are at the center of the opioid epidemic in the United States. Opioid painkillers affect the central nervous system and slow it down to change how a person feels and experiences pain.
Black box warnings exist to let people know about the risks of combining alcohol and painkillers. Mixing the two can increase the risk of fatal respiratory depression. Some painkillers also contain acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage. The risk of liver damage increases when using alcohol because alcohol can also damage the liver.
Dangers of Mixing Alcohol with Drugs
Alcohol on its own can have serious, negative effects on a person’s thinking, behavior, and health. When someone pairs alcohol with drugs, all of these risks tend to increase. When a person regularly uses drugs and alcohol together, it can also make it more likely that they develop an addiction and dependence on both substances.
Side Effects of Alcohol and Drug Addiction
The side effects of alcohol and drug addiction can be far-reaching. The complications and side effects of alcohol and drug addiction can lead to the aforementioned dangerous interactions. It can also cause health and behavioral complications. The use of alcohol and drugs can start mildly and recreationally, but it can quickly spiral out of control. If a person also abuses alcohol, they are at a greater risk of abusing another substance as well.
Some of the general, short-term effects of using alcohol and drugs simultaneously can include:
- Changes in mood or new or worsening psychiatric symptoms
- Loss of inhibition, judgment, and decision-making
- Blackouts or short-term memory loss
- Loss of concentration
- Changes in sleep habits
- Increases or decreases in heart rate
- Feeling increasingly anxious or sad
- Breathing problems
Long-term effects of combining drugs and alcohol include:
- Polysubstance addiction and dependence
- Organ damage
- Breakdown of muscle and bone
- Ongoing memory problems
- Loss of coordination
- Financial problems
- Problems with a career
- New or worsening mental health problems
Treatment Options for Co-Occurring Alcohol and Drug Addictions
For someone with co-occurring alcohol and drug addictions, help is available. A professional addiction treatment program can address alcohol and drug addictions. It’s important to look for a program that has experience with polysubstance drug abuse because it is a complicated addiction requiring specialized treatment.
For many people with co-occurring alcohol and drug addictions, treatment may start with supervised detox. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and even more so if a person also goes through withdrawal from other substances. Since many co-occurring alcohol and drug addictions are severe, many people benefit from inpatient rehab after they go through detox.
If you or a loved one live with co-occurring substance use disorders, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative to learn more about how addiction treatment works. Take the first step toward a healthier future, call today.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Alcohol and Other Drugs.” July 2008. Accessed June 14, 2019. Ashton, Elizabeth. “Alcohol Abuse Makes Prescription Drug Abuse More Likely.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, March 1, 2008. Accessed June 14, 2019. WebMD. “Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills.” Accessed June 14, 2019. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is MDMA?” June 2018. Accessed June 14, 2019. Scharff, Constance. “The Dangers of Combining Alcohol and Marijuana.” Psychology Today, May 6, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2019. Jacques, Erica. “Is It Safe to Mix Painkillers and Alcohol?” Verywell Health, March 30, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2019.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Alcohol and Other Drugs.” July 2008. Accessed June 14, 2019.
Ashton, Elizabeth. “Alcohol Abuse Makes Prescription Drug Abuse More Likely.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, March 1, 2008. Accessed June 14, 2019.
WebMD. “Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills.” Accessed June 14, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is MDMA?” June 2018. Accessed June 14, 2019.
Scharff, Constance. “The Dangers of Combining Alcohol and Marijuana.” Psychology Today, May 6, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2019.
Jacques, Erica. “Is It Safe to Mix Painkillers and Alcohol?” Verywell Health, March 30, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2019.