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Polydrug Abuse: What it Is & Why We’re Concerned

mixing drugs

Across the nation, there is a rapidly rising phenomenon hitting emergency rooms. It’s known as “polydrug abuse,” and it is affecting young drug users most of all.

What is Polydrug Abuse?

Polydrug abuse (also known as multidrug use) means using multiple drugs at once to achieve a certain effect. Often, users will mix multiple drugs to experience a new or more powerful high.

How is this possible? Polydrug abuse intensifies the effects of each drug used, and allows the user to experience different types of highs at the same time. The euphoric effects are unique and more extreme, but so are the negative side effects.

As an example, many people will drink alcohol and take painkillers at the same time, which intensifies the feelings a user will get from each. Taking these substances together, however, will also increase the risk that a person will stop breathing.

Why is Polydrug Abuse Dangerous?

Drugs are inherently risky, whether you purchased them off the street or found them in the medicine cabinet. They carry an array of side effects when misused. For example, taking too many painkillers can lead to respiratory depression. Using too much cocaine can lead to a heart attack. Even excessive drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Now, think about using two or more substances during the same timeframe. The risks increase exponentially when multiple drugs are used. Below are some of the top dangers of polydrug abuse:

  • Side effects are more severe.

As mentioned above, all drugs have the potential for negative side effects – even prescriptions and over the counter medications. However, when two or more types of drugs are used together, painful and harmful interactions can occur in the body. The effects vary by drug combination, which we discuss a bit more below. However, common, acute side effects of polydrug abuse include nausea, body pain, heart rate changes, respiratory issues, and blood pressure fluctuations. More severe side effects include seizures, brain damage, coma, heart problems, respiratory failure, liver damage, stomach bleeding, and more.

  • There is a greater risk for overdose.

The risk for overdose increases when multiple substances are involved. This is because some drugs have the ability to counter-act or mask the effects of other drugs, making it difficult for users to understand when they’ve had enough. For example, the stimulating effects of cocaine can mask the more numbing effects of heroin. When taken in combination, a cocaine user might not feel the full effects of heroin (at least as much as they’d like to), and accidentally take too much as a result. This can, in turn, lead to overdose.

  • Treatment becomes more complicated.

When a person overdoses on multiple drugs, it inherently becomes more difficult to treat. Opioid overdose can often be reversed using a drug like Narcan (i.e. naloxone). However, Narcan may not be effective if a user is overdosing on another substance as well.

If a user is addicted to polydrug abuse, and therefore multiple substances (i.e. cross addiction), then treatment must also be tailored accordingly. Cross addiction treatment will require the help of specialized professionals who are well-trained in all types of substance use disorders.

  • Symptoms of mental health disorder may also (re)surface.

There is no questioning the fact that substance abuse can trigger symptoms of a mental health disorder. And when substances are combined, this becomes more problematic. Polydrug abuse depletes the brain’s dopamine or “feelgood” chemicals, and can in turn stir up mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

If symptoms of a mental health disorder are already present, substance abuse can make those symptoms worse. Likewise, the symptoms of a mental health disorder can exacerbate drug abuse – and lead a person to use multiple drugs.

What are Common Drug Mixes?

According to Edward Kaufman, psychiatrist and medical author, the total number of possible drug combinations is “in the billions.” However, there are some common patterns of polydrug abuse that often occur today. These include:

  • Alcohol and any other psychoactive substance
  • Opioids and stimulants, like cocaine
  • Opioids and benzodiazepines, like Xanax
  • Prescription, OTC, and/or illicit drugs combined

Alcohol is perhaps the most commonly combined substance with other drugs. Users may mix alcohol with prescription or illicit drugs to achieve a “better” result. For example, some people will use cocaine (a stimulant) during a night of drinking, to keep the party going and to avoid the comedown that often comes with alcohol (a depressant). Others may couple alcohol with their anxiety medication to get a “better” night’s sleep. No matter the case, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), mixing alcohol with other drugs can result in dangerous physical effects, including alcohol poisoning, respiratory depression, blackouts, and death.

Parents take note – The NIDA also points out that young adults are most at risk for simultaneous abuse of both alcohol and prescription drugs.

You see, dangerous, multidrug use is not limited to illicit substances. While safe when used as directed, prescription and over-the-counter medications can also cause severe negative effects. Especially when combined, prescription drugs can put a person at great risk of overdose and intense hallucinations, breathing problems, panic attacks, sedation, and more, depending on the types of drugs used.

Opioids and benzos – both central nervous system depressants – are a frequent prescription drug combo, often used to achieve a “numbing” effect. However, when used simultaneously, these drugs can quickly result in respiratory depression, due to a lack of oxygen to the brain, and fatal overdose.

Some drug users will take opioids (such as the prescription Vicodin, or the illicit drug heroin) at the same time as cocaine – a combination known as “speedball” – to avoid the negative effects and comedown of either drug. Opioids are depressants, cocaine is a stimulant, and together, they produce an increased sense of euphoria. However, they are also very dangerous when combined.

Cocaine and opioids, when used together or during the same time period, will cause conflicting responses in the body. Cocaine (a stimulant) will activate the sympathetic nervous system. Opioids (depressants) will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. These are completely opposite effects, which confuses the body’s CNS and can put it into a state of chaos or shock. This does not only happen with opioids and cocaine – conflicting effects can happen with all different drug combinations, causing a dangerous bodily response.

Seeking Help

Studies show that close to 60 percent of people in drug treatment have used more than one drug. Many of those in recovery are there for multiple addictions. Yet no one of their stories are the same. Their drugs of choice are not always the same. As a result, each treatment plan must be tailored to each individual. What works for one person may not work for another. If you have a loved one who is addicted to drugs, or partakes in dangerous drug abuse, then it is important to consider his or her needs.

The NIDA explains that the most effective type of addiction treatment is a program that is customized to address all of the client’s needs, even needs beyond the substance abuse. For example, treatment programs should also address any legal issues, mental health disorders, or physical ailments in an integrated treatment plan. In the case of polydrug abuse, the right treatment program will help clients identify what led to their use of multiple substances, and better understand the root of their addiction.

This is a tactic that is often utilized through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on the behaviors, thought patterns, and attitudes involved in a person’s substance use. The therapy is designed to get to the root of one’s addictive problems, to develop strategies for changing their behaviors, and to learn mechanisms for overcoming cravings. Polydrug use is often a sign that something deeper is happening inside a person – something more than the youthful recreation and rebellion parents expect. Polydrug use often indicates that an individual requires professional counseling and support.

If your loved one is in need of professional treatment, or even if you suspect your loved one is using drugs dangerously, it is important to seek help immediately. Especially in cases of polydrug abuse, there is an extremely high risk of overdose and addiction. Adolescents and young adults are at the greatest risk for these long-term consequences. Call Turnbridge today at 877-581-1793 to learn about our drug treatment programs for young men and women. We are here for you.