What Is Polysubstance Abuse? Everything You Need to Know

September 26, 2022

Polysubstance abuse is the abuse of multiple drugs, either simultaneously or over a short period of time.

The term is far-reaching and includes everything from cigarettes and beer to heroin and methamphetamines. 

Obviously, the severity and risk of polysubstance abuse can vary wildly, but no matter what the substance is, you’re always increasing the risk of adverse effects when you consume multiple drugs at once.

Intentional and Unintentional Polysubstance Abuse

Intentional polysubstance abuse occurs when someone knowingly takes a combination of different drugs to either heighten or alter their intended effects.

For instance, someone who’s addicted to heroin might take some prescription painkillers to add to the relaxation effect at a cheaper cost. 

Another common polysubstance abuse situation includes “party” drugs. People may combine MDMA, cocaine, or psychedelic drugs in order to augment their high. 

Unintentional abuse happens when someone buys drugs off the street that have been cut with other drugs. Fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs due to its low cost and high potency.

Unintentional abuse is exceptionally dangerous since people aren’t aware of what is going into their bodies and therefore aren’t able to judge if they’ve taken too much until it’s too late.

Unintentional abuse can also happen with prescription drugs. Some people go to multiple doctors and don’t inform them of other drugs they’re taking. They then get prescribed a medication that doesn’t mix well with what they already have.

You should always be forthcoming with your doctor about what medications you’re taking and if you have a history of abuse so that they can avoid situations like this.

The Dangers of Mixing Drugs

Whether you’re combining similar drugs or mixing uppers and downers, you are putting an incredible amount of strain on your heart. That strain can lead to immediate negative effects, like a heart attack, or long-term effects, like weakened heart muscle or arrhythmia.

Other side effects of abusing multiple drugs include:

Because of the way drugs deplete your serotonin, depression becomes an almost unavoidable long-term effect of polysubstance abuse.

Abusing almost any drug will result in your brain producing less serotonin naturally. Combining multiple drugs just amplifies that loss. 

The Most Dangerous Drug Combinations

Even though there are no “safe” drug combinations, some will leave you especially vulnerable to hospitalizations — or even death. Here are a few combinations that you should avoid at all costs.

Alcohol and Opiates

Alcohol and opiates — such as heroin, OxyContin, and Fentanyl — are commonly abused together. Opiates are some of the most addictive drugs in the world, and alcohol is one of the most frequently abused.

Both drugs are central nervous depressants that impair brain activity and slow the functioning of a number of other organs — specifically, the lungs.

By slowing down and depressing lung function, using both together can exponentially increase your risk of death by overdose. 

Notable people who have died from this combination include Heath Ledger, Corey Monteith, and Hank Williams.

Alcohol and Antidepressants

Alcohol and antidepressants have very similar effects and are often used to heighten one another. Both make the user feel calm and drowsy, and the combo is seen as a cheap way to get the user intensely drunk quickly.

Much like alcohol and opiates, both drugs are central nervous depressants, create a higher level of intoxication, and even further decreased motor skills and brain function. 

The increased drowsiness and weakened state of internal organs are a combination that can cause your respiratory system to fail while sleeping. 

If you’re mixing antidepressants that are prescribed by a doctor, combining them with alcohol could actually worsen your depressive symptoms and significantly increase the likelihood of all the negative side effects for both the antidepressants and alcohol.

Notable people who have died from mixing these drugs include Brittany Murphy and Amy Winehouse.

Cocaine and Opiates

The combination of cocaine and opiates is commonly known as a “speedball” and is one of the most dangerous drug combinations in the world. This usually involves mixing and injecting both drugs intravenously, but both can be ingested in other ways at the same time.

Users report that the two drugs combined can balance the negative effects of the other, creating a smoother high and easier comedown.

And while that may be true, the negative health risks are in no way mitigated by using them together.

One of the biggest risks of speedballing comes from the fact that it’s primarily created with street drugs like heroin and cocaine. Both of these will almost always be impure, and therefore the effects are impossible to predict.

And since you’re combining a stimulant and a depressant, the rapid change in heart rate can cause arrhythmia, stroke, or heart failure. 

Your brain can also be severely affected. You may experience psychosis, paranoia, or other mental breaks very shortly after you start abusing this combination of drugs.

Notable people who have died from this combination include Mitch Hedberg, John Belushi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and River Phoenix.

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