Substance abuse is a problem that affects many people, including those who are addicted and dependent upon substances as well as the people around them. In many cases, people are addicted or dependent on multiple drugs, using many drugs at the same time or alternating between two or more drugs to counteract the side effects of the other. This is known as polysubstance abuse. It’s important to understand the nature of polysubstance abuse and to know the risk factors involved and the treatment options that are available. 

What is Polysubstance Abuse?

Polysubstance abuse is the term that describes the abuse of more than one drug at the same time. Polysubstance abuse can include one or more street drugs, one or more prescription drugs, or both. Alcohol is the most common substance involved in polysubstance abuse. Sometimes people who take prescription drugs will combine them with alcohol, unwittingly bringing about undesired side effects and increasing the risks to their health and well-being. Polysubstance abuse can be extremely dangerous and more difficult to treat than an addiction to a single drug.

Why Do People Abuse Multiple Drugs?

Some people abuse multiple drugs after they have built up a tolerance to one or more substances. They have to keep adding more substances to their drug regimen to maintain the high that they were getting when they first started using. In other cases, taking drugs can amplify the effects of another substance. For example, many prescription drugs create an enhanced effect when taken while consuming alcohol. Finally, many people abuse multiple drugs because one drug may offset the effects of another. An example of this is taking anxiety medication or sedatives when coming down from a cocaine or amphetamine high.

Who Is at Risk for Polysubstance Abuse?

People who are addicted to alcohol or dependent upon it are at a high risk for polysubstance abuse. Conversely, those who have a prescription for anxiety, depression or pain medications but only drink occasionally may inadvertently develop a dependence when taking both drugs simultaneously. People who are active in certain scenes, like the club or rave scene, are likely to take multiple drugs at the same time or to experiment with various drugs while drinking. People with ADHD or similar disorders are more prone to impulsive behaviors and have a higher risk of polysubstance abuse. The risk of polysubstance abuse extends across all demographic groups.

The Risks of Polysubstance Abuse

Abusing or misusing any drug comes with significant risks, so it goes without saying that polysubstance abuse increases these risks tremendously. Developing a tolerance to one or more drugs often leads people to take higher and higher doses, increasing the chances of an overdose. Side effects of the drugs become more severe when taken in combination with other drugs and alcohol. Over time, chronic health issues and changes in brain composition are common outcomes of polysubstance abuse. Successful treatment becomes more difficult when patients are dependent upon multiple substances.

Treatment Options for Polysubstance Abuse

Since many substances have intense withdrawal symptoms, people seeking treatment for polysubstance abuse may be advised to remain at a treatment facility for several days or even weeks. During this time, they will be closely monitored by the facility’s medical staff. Withdrawal symptoms for each drug may be addressed one at a time, with the more severe withdrawal symptoms getting the top priority. For example, a patient who is dependent upon alcohol and pain medication may be given opioid replacement therapy like methadone to address their withdrawal symptoms. Other nonmedical treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, may be used to assist the patient is establishing new thought patterns and coping mechanisms to help them avoid abusing drugs in the future.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.