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Understanding Polysubstance Dependence

Understanding Polysubstance Dependence

The public is often taught that those struggling with addiction have a “drug of choice,” or one specific substance that they use regularly. However, this is rarely the case. The unfortunate reality is that nearly half of all overdose deaths in the United States are not isolated to one drug. In recent years, it’s become increasingly common that overdose deaths are a result of a complicated and lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol. When someone develops a dependency on more than one substance to achieve the desired high, it is known as polysubstance dependency. While this particular substance use disorder has rapidly become the norm for those struggling with addiction, the unpredictable nature of mixing different substances can easily become deadly.

What Is Polysubstance Dependence?

Polysubstance drug use refers to consuming more than one drug at once to achieve a desired high. As the cycle of use continues, someone using multiple substances at once will develop a polysubstance dependence and become addicted to being in an intoxicated state with no particular preference for a substance. [middle-callout] While one of the most important elements of diagnosing polysubstance dependency is that the user has no “drug of choice,” there are also key psychological indicators that should be evaluated. For someone to be considered polysubstance dependent, three of the following symptoms must be present over a 12 months period of time:

  • Tolerance: Increased tolerance to the side effects of substance use.
  • Withdrawal: Facing withdrawal symptoms when not using the combination of substances.
  • Loss Of Control: Repeated use of substances more than planned.
  • Inability To Stop Using: Inability to stop using even when there is a desire to.
  • Time: Dedicating more and more time to drug use.
  • Interference With Activities: Giving up activities in order to spend more time abusing substances.
  • Harm To Self: Continuing substance use despite the physical or psychological harm they have caused.

Any combination of these symptoms is a good indicator that someone is suffering from polysubstance dependence or addiction and should seek treatment.

Why Do People Use More Than One Substance At A Time?

Occasionally, polysubstance dependence will begin unintentionally. Those using prescription antidepressants may also have a glass of wine at night or combine different medications from various doctors without realizing the effects that one substance could have on the other. However, more often than not, people will intentionally combine substances in order to experience great effects from multiple substances. People mix and match drugs or alcohol for a range of reasons including, to improve the “high,” to reduce unwanted side effects, to reduce chronic pain, to reduce sleep problems or simply because the substances are available and other people are doing them. One of the most frequently used combinations of drugs is called a “speed-ball.”  This is the simultaneous injection of cocaine and heroin or another opioid. While the cocaine acts as a stimulant, the heroin acts as a depressant. Co-administering the two is meant to provide an intense rush of euphoria while offsetting the harmful effects of a stimulant with a depressant. Unfortunately, just as combining substances can enhance the euphoric side effects of the substances used, mixing drugs can also create unpredictable and dangerous consequences.

Dangers Of Combining Substances

There is a range of short-term and long-term side effects of polysubstance use depending on the substances combined. However, some of the most common dangers of polysubstance dependency are:

  • Increased Severity Of Side Effects: Combining substances is not as simple as adding up the separate effects each drug. Instead, mixing substances can increase the severity of symptoms exponentially. The unique set of symptoms that combining substances can create are called addictive effects. These symptoms can include vomiting, worse hangovers, poor memory retention, lowered inhibition and overdose.
  • Increased Toxicity Of Substances: According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction, interactions between different drugs consumed close together in time can lead to increased toxicity. Due to this, they report that polysubstance drug use makes up a large portion of medical emergencies. Mixing substances for an extended period of will expose the body to toxics long-term and could result in liver disease, hepatitis C and heart attack.
  • Increased Risk Of Overdose: Overdose is a possibility for anyone who uses drugs regularly. However, the risk of overdose increases when multiple substances are being used. Since one substance might mask the effects of the other, users may unintentionally take a higher dose than normal. This can result in overdose and if not treated immediately, could lead to permanent brain damage or death.

The side effects of combining substances are often unpredictable and can result in a range of severe and deadly consequences.

Detox From Polysubstance Dependence

Since a person has developed a psychological and physical dependence to more than one drug, treating a polysubstance dependency can be vastly more difficult than treating any other substance use disorder. Due to the uncertain nature of withdrawal and the combination of drugs in the body, detox should be done under medical supervision. This ensures that the patient will receive continuous monitoring throughout the detox process in order to minimize the adverse and painful side effects of withdrawal. It also ensures that medical professionals are able to intervene quickly if more serious and life-threatening symptoms occur.  

Treatment And Recovery From Polysubstance Dependence

While detox is an important part of long-term sobriety, it is only the first step in the recovery process. Once the body and brain have been completely detoxed, it’s critical that those suffering from polysubstance dependency find an addiction treatment program that will help them maintain their sobriety. Working with a team of professionals after treatment will help clients build new relationships, learn healthy coping mechanisms, set boundaries and most importantly, live a fulfilling life in recovery. Addiction is not a curable disease. However, with the right tools and support, a life in long-term recovery is possible and there is a network of people who are willing to help those currently struggling. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, call to speak with one of our treatment specialists today at 844-470-0410.