What Is Polysubstance Abuse?

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Simply put, polysubstance abuse is the use of more than one drug at a time. This is more common than one may think. It also refers to the use of prescription drugs while using other non-medical substances. For instance, someone taking a benzodiazepine for anxiety may mix it with alcohol without consciously realizing they are mixing substances.

A user should always inform their counselor of all the substances they use, whether they are illegal or prescribed. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report for 2017, many drug overdose deaths are the result of multiple drugs being used at the same time.

Causes of Polysubstance Abuse

There is a strong link between mental illness and drug abuse. Oftentimes, a person uses substances to self-medicate which leads to addiction. If a person seeks help for their mental illness but doesn’t divulge their substance use, it may exacerbate their mental health issues and make therapy less effective.

Also, alcohol can prevent the absorption of some medicines, like lamotrigine (a mood stabilizer often prescribed for treatment of bipolar disorders), which diminishes their effects on the brain. In this way, polysubstance abuse is very detrimental.

Other people intentionally participate in polysubstance abuse to experience greater effects from multiple substances. Users may have a preferred substance of abuse that they then combine with other substances to enhance the primary substance’s effects.

For example, those who regularly abuse opioid drugs, like heroin or prescription painkillers, may sometimes take them with benzodiazepines to experience even greater relaxation or sedative effects. While the combination can enhance the desired effects of the drugs, polysubstance abuse also increases the potential negative effects of each drug.

Complications from Polysubstance Abuse

There are many drugs that can cause fatal reactions when combined. For instance, it is common for drug users to combine heroin with cocaine. This is fatal because they are counterproductive to each other. Heroin is a depressant while cocaine is a stimulant, and the combination of both in the system can cause fatal complications of the heart, such as a heart attack.

Also, a large number of overdose deaths are attributed to this combination because people think the counteractive effects of each drug means they can take more heroin than normal. In this case, heroin overdose is more often the cause of death.

Polysubstance abuse also makes for complicated treatment. The withdrawals from polysubstance abuse are more severe than when using one drug. This means that finding a clinical detox program is the first step. In these detox programs, patients are monitored 24/7 with regular checks on their vital signs. If necessary, a doctor may provide medicines to ease the severity of withdrawal symptoms such as nausea or depression.

Due to the unpredictability of withdrawal from multiple substances, medical monitoring is always needed. Furthermore, the support and encouragement given in medical detox decrease the likelihood of a patient’s relapse and increase the chances of successful withdrawal from the substances being abused.

Treatment Options

After detox, a user will need extensive inpatient treatment to deal with their addiction. In many polysubstance use disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy is used to treat behaviors and feelings associated with their addiction. The key to successful treatment is that it is tailored to the individual’s needs. If a person uses substances as a way to self-medicate a psychological disorder, that issue needs to be addressed in treatment, or the risk of relapse increases.

It is not uncommon for treatments to be restructured during the process. This is because new issues might arise, or a person may become more motivated through the process. It is important to research a facility before you choose to seek treatment to see what experience they have with treating polysubstance use.

Why People Become Polysubstance Abusers

One factor that could influence polysubstance use disorder is genetics. Some people are exposed to multiple substance use somewhere in their childhood. A parent’s substance abuse can be a major influence on whether a child becomes an addict or not. There are also social factors that play into polysubstance abuse.

Many teens engage in polysubstance abuse as a way to experiment with drugs. They are not mature enough to use proper risk assessment when using multiple substances and may not have the proper knowledge of the interactions of substances.

This is a reason why drug education is very important for adolescents and teens. They need to understand how drugs affect the formation of their brains. Drug use in adolescents and teens can have major effects on cognitive ability. Consider that a human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Prolonged drug use can have permanent effects even on an adult’s fully formed brain, so the implications of early and prolonged drug abuse are troubling.

Polysubstance abuse is very common and is more difficult to treat than mono-substance abuse. Contact Northstar Transitions to find out about our experience with treating polysubstance abuse. It is important to understand the effects drugs have on a person’s body in order to avoid fatal combinations, and many drug overdoses can be linked to polysubstance abuse. Here at Northstar Transitions, we understand that drug education is vital in preventing this kind of substance abuse. If you or a loved one is struggling with polysubstance use disorder, Northstar Transitions is here to help. Call us now at (303) 558-6400.


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