multi-substance Use refers to the intentional or unintentional combination of substances. This can also be called combined drug intoxication or multiple drug ingestion. With polypharmacy, a person takes two or more drugs at the same time or within a short period of time. Drug intoxication can occur with alcohol, drugs, and prescription drugs.
This article discusses the signs, symptoms, and dangers of using multiple substances, and how to find treatment options.
Substance use is a major public health crisis. To complicate matters, many people use multiple substances.
A study of substance prevalence and patterns identified factors that increase the risk of multi-substance problems, including:
- Age (younger people are at higher risk)
- low level of education
- Depression and other mood disorders
- severe tobacco or alcohol use
Genetics, family history of substance use, stress, trauma, and availability of medications are other factors that may contribute to multiple substance use.
How common is polysubstance abuse?
Mixing drugs is not uncommon and seems to be the norm, according to research. For example, one study noted that among opioid users, nearly all participants used both opioids or non-opioids. Research also shows that people who use tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, prescription opioids, cocaine and heroin are more likely to struggle with multiple substance abuse.
Signs that someone may be battling multiple substance abuse include, but are not limited to:
- mood swings
- behavioral changes
- Falling behind or neglecting personal and professional responsibilities
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Legal and Financial Issues
- health problems
- engage in drug use
People dealing with polysubstance use may notice the following symptoms:
- cravings and urges to use
- Consider and plan to use
- Difficulty controlling substance use
- Tolerates or requires mixing or use of larger quantities of substances to achieve desired effect
- Withdrawal symptoms after stopping use
- anxiety, depression or isolation
- Personal and relationship consequences (family, work, school or relationship issues)
The dangers of using multiple substances
A person can mix drugs to enhance the effect of a single drug, to feel the effect of a drug, or to decrease the effect of a substance. Mixing substances can have serious consequences.
Drugs and alcohol can harm the body. Using multiple medications puts a person at risk of developing or worsening health problems. The resulting health problems can be short-term or long-term.
Mixing substances can cause damage to vital organs such as the brain and liver, and can lead to health complications such as:
- heart attack
- Brain Injury
Mental disorders worsen
In some cases, substance use can cause mental health symptoms. In other cases, individuals may self-medicate or use medication to control symptoms.
Either way, taking medications or combining them can worsen mental health symptoms and make them worse. This includes the use of substances on top of prescription medications for mental health conditions.
Prevention of relapse is an important part of treatment and recovery. Using multiple substances can make it difficult for someone to receive treatment. It can also lead to relapses. Relapses are serious and, depending on the situation, may increase the risk of health problems and overdose.
The risk of overdose is higher when using multiple substances, especially if one of them is an opioid. Depending on the type of medication, the effects on the body may vary.
The effect can be enhanced when the drugs are taken together. For example, taking more than one sedative drug increases the risk of overdose or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of overdose deaths in the United States in 2019 were related to the use of multiple substances.
Mental health symptoms and the use of multiple substances can exacerbate each other by causing or worsening the problem. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health symptoms or substance use, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 to find out what is available in your area Information on support and treatment facilities.
For more mental health resources, see our national helpline database.
In the event of a drug overdose or medical emergency, call 911 immediately.
Because polysubstance abuse involves the use of multiple drugs, the first step in treatment is detoxifyA healthcare provider often oversees this process to manage and relieve withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawals can be intense and physically draining.
Some withdrawal symptoms include:
- mood changes
- nausea or vomiting
After detoxification, patients can begin treatment in a residential or intensive care clinic.
A mental health professional will conduct an assessment to understand the patient’s mental health and substance use history. This information can also help healthcare providers and patients determine the best treatment. For example, it must be determined whether substance use disorders will be treated concurrently and independently, and other professionals may be part of the care team.
Intensive and outpatient settings allow people to explore their use-related thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, learn coping and problem-solving skills, and develop a plan for relapse prevention.
Some therapies that can help include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- motivational interview
- family therapy
- group therapy
- Self-Help and Peer Support Groups
In addition to detoxification and treatment, healthcare providers can integrate medications into treatment plans to manage mental health or medical conditions and reduce the urge or urge to use.
Treatment varies from patient to patient. Working closely with the treatment team will determine the best approach.
Polysubstance abuse is the intentional or unintentional mixing of substances. While people combine medications for many reasons, taking more than one drug at the same time is dangerous. People who use multiple substances are more likely to experience health problems, decreased mental health, overdose or death. Substance use therapy can help people reduce and stop their behavior.
If you are struggling with substance or multi-substance use, you are not alone. The first step in seeking help and making change is to be honest with yourself about your actions. Polysubstance use can affect your mind, body, relationships, and other areas of your life. While recovery can be challenging, it is possible with social and professional support.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is polysubstance abuse?
The use of multiple substances involves intentional or unintentional mixing of drugs, alcohol, or prescription drugs. Despite serious consequences, a person may continue to use and combine medications. Using multiple substances can be particularly harmful and increase the risk of mental and physical health problems and overdose or death.
What is a “drug cocktail”?
Drug cocktails are combinations of drugs used to achieve a high or specific effect. Because medicines can interact in the body, it is important to know what medicines you are taking. Combining drugs (stimulants, sedatives, hallucinogens, etc.) can have serious health consequences.
Can you recover from multiple substance abuse?
Recovery is possible. There are a variety of treatment options available to people who use a variety of substances. Treatment recommendations may vary and depend on the severity of use. Detox, hospital admission, intensive outpatient care, and aftercare are options a healthcare provider may recommend. Additionally, people can find community through self-help or peer support groups.