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What is Polysubstance Abuse? Why Is It Dangerous?

Learn more about polysubstance abuse, a dangerous problem for many who struggle with addiction, and resources available.

What is Polysubstance Abuse?

Polysubstance abuse is a common problem for those who struggle with addiction. During addiction treatment, it’s important to know all substances that someone uses to provide the best possible care and treatment. This is why it’s important to be aware of polysubstance abuse signs and symptoms.

Polysubstance Abuse Definition

Polysubstance abuse is when someone uses more than one drug. Polydrug abuse includes when two or more drugs are taken together or within a short time period, either intentionally or unintentionally. Polydrug abuse is common and can be very dangerous, which is why proper support and treatment are necessary for those who struggle with polysubstance addiction.1

Who is at Risk for Polysubstance Abuse?

There are many risk factors that can contribute to someone developing a polysubstance use disorder. Someone who builds a high tolerance to one drug may also want to begin using other drugs along with it to create a stronger high.

Using more than one substance for this purpose is very dangerous and can have life-threatening side effects. Other factors like genetics, peer pressure, and being in an environment with heavy substance abuse can all lead to someone being at a higher risk for polysubstance use disorder.

Polysubstance Abuse

Common Polysubstance Abuse Combinations

When someone struggles with a polysubstance use disorder, there are common drug combinations that may be used. Some combinations are:

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Opioids and Benzodiazepines

Both opioids and benzodiazepines are depressants that can have sedative properties. Many who abuse these substances together do so to create a stronger high. This can be dangerous and increases the likelihood of an overdose since both drugs can suppress breathing. 

In 2020, 16 percent of opioid overdose deaths involved benzodiazepines. If someone struggles with polydrug abuse involving opioids and benzodiazepines, it’s important they get the proper help and support to avoid life-threatening complications. 2

Prescription Medication and Illicit Drugs

Many who struggle with polysubstance addiction will combine prescription medication and illicit drug use. Oftentimes, someone who becomes addicted to prescription medication won’t always have access to those medications due to the cost of the medication or having trouble getting additional prescriptions. This can lead to combining prescription drug use with illegal substances that are bought on the street.

Heroin and Cocaine

Polydrug abuse of heroin and cocaine is also common. Many who abuse these two substances do so because they have opposite effects. Heroin is a depressant, whereas cocaine is a stimulant. Those who struggle with heroin addiction may use cocaine as an upper when they need it, and those who struggle with cocaine addiction may use heroin as a way to come down from the stimulant effects of a cocaine high.

Multiple Opioids

Polysubstance addiction to multiple opioids is also common, especially when someone begins with prescription opioid abuse. When someone becomes addicted to prescription opioids, it can be harder to get additional prescriptions or get the same type of prescription opioid all the time. This can lead to abusing multiple types of prescription opioids along with illegal opioid drugs like heroin that can be bought on the street. 

Drinking Alcohol While Using Other Drugs

Drinking alcohol while using other drugs is another common form of polydrug abuse. Combining alcohol with other substances in party or club settings is common and can be very dangerous. Over time, this can lead to polysubstance addiction and other long-term health effects.  

Signs and Symptoms of Polysubstance Abuse

It is important to know the signs and symptoms of polysubstance abuse in order to determine if someone may be struggling with an addiction. Signs of polysubstance abuse can be physical, behavioral, or psychological. These will be detailed below.

Physical Signs of Polysubstance Abuse

Common physical polysubstance abuse symptoms include:

  • Cravings and urges to use
  • Developing a tolerance to drugs
  • Physical health problems
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking drugs
  • Poor physical appearance
  • Significant weight loss or gain

Behavioral Signs of Polysubstance Abuse

Common behavioral signs of polysubstance abuse are:

  • Engaging in drug-seeking behavior
  • Frequent intoxication
  • Irregular sleep or eating habits
  • Isolation from others
  • Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities
  • Secretive behavior

Psychological Signs of Polysubstance Abuse

Common psychological signs of polysubstance abuse include:3

  • Anxiety
  • Constantly thinking about drug use
  • Depression
  • Feeling like you have to take a substance to function normally
  • Mood swings
  • Psychological withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking a substance

Dangers of Polysubstance Abuse

There are many dangers associated with polysubstance dependence and abuse. These will be discussed in detail below.

Increased Severity of Side Effects

Polydrug abuse leads to increased severity of side effects. Due to interactions that different substances can have, it can increase the likelihood of having side effects and more severe side effects. 

Physical Health Complications

Using multiple substances is hard on the body and can lead to physical health complications over time. Physical health complications from drug use can be lifelong and very dangerous in some instances.

Complications Due to Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues

Polydrug abuse can lead to the worsening of mental health issues. Due to the heavy side effects of using more than one substance, it can take a toll on someone’s mind and may lead to further cognitive or emotional issues over time.

Polysubstance Overdose

One of the main dangers of polysubstance abuse is the risk of overdose. Polysubstance use can have many health complications that can make an overdose more likely to occur.

Studies have shown that more than half of all overdose deaths involve more than one substance. This shows how dangerous polydrug use can be and why proper treatment and support are needed for those who struggle with addiction. 4

Treatment for Polysubstance Abuse

Polysubstance Abuse

If you or someone you know is struggling with polysubstance abuse, treatment is available. The process of recovery includes:

Detoxification Under Medical Supervision

Withdrawal symptoms can be more serious for someone who struggles with addiction to more than one substance. This is why it’s necessary to have around-the-clock medical supervision available when going through the detox process.


Medications may also be used during a treatment program to help ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent a relapse from occurring.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is also common in addiction treatment to help patients build more positive behavioral patterns and develop coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses of life without the use of drugs or alcohol. Behavioral therapy can also help uncover and work through any underlying conditions.

Aftercare Support

After a treatment program has been completed, the health care professionals at the treatment center will likely recommend some form of aftercare to help you continue your recovery and maintain long-term sobriety.

Get help at Ripple Ranch Recovery

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or polysubstance abuse, Ripple Ranch Recovery is here to help. Ripple Ranch Recovery uses an evidence-based approach to treatment with treatment programs that can be customized for your personal needs.

The knowledgeable treatment professionals at Ripple Ranch Recovery will be with you as you work through your treatment program and get on the path to recovery. Contact us today for more information about how we can help you.