The term polydrug abuse is a broad term for different patterns of substance abuse that combine multiple intoxicating substances. People who abuse multiple substances often have one primary substance they ingest and combine that substance with others to enhance the intoxication or to reduce negative side effects. For example, people who struggle with cocaine addiction may take benzodiazepines to reduce the anxiety and paranoia associated with taking too much of the stimulant, or people who suffer from opioid addiction may take benzodiazepines to enhance the relaxed euphoria that narcotics can induce.

Polydrug Abuse Is Dangerous

Mixing drugs or alcohol together can change how the user experiences the high, but it also leads to worse, less predictable side effects. The body can suffer harm; the person could develop mental health problems; or they could severely damage personal relationships. Here are some of the problems that can occur when a person abuses multiple drugs at once:

  • Overdose: People who combine substances for recreational purposes increase their risk of overdose, and combining substances decreases the ability of medical professionals to successfully treat the situation. For example, when a person abuses opioids, naloxone can be administered to temporarily reverse the overdose so the user can get emergency medical attention; however, when alcohol, benzodiazepines, or another substance is mixed with narcotic drugs, naloxone will not be effective in reversing the overdose.Central nervous system depressants, like alcohol, benzodiazepines, sleep medications, opioids, and other drugs, can enhance each other’s effects, which dramatically increases the risk of overdose. Mixing some stimulants, like MDMA, with alcohol can also lead to overdose more rapidly.
  • Worsened side effects: When intoxicating substances are combined, side effects can become more intense or harmful. Some of these potential side effects include:
    • Loss of physical coordination
    • Changes in heart rate or blood pressure
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Stomach problems or pain
    • Behavioral changes, especially violent or aggressive behavior
  • Organ damage: The heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs are all affected by intoxicating substances. For example, when a person takes too much of a narcotic, their breathing will become depressed, and they may suffer hypoxia. When a person struggles with alcohol use disorder, they are more likely to suffer liver failure. Amphetamines or cocaine can cause damage to the heart by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. When intoxicating drugs are combined, they may overwhelm organs like the liver or kidneys, or increase side effects like blood pressure or breathing changes, which in turn, can lead to long-lasting damage.
  • Mood disorders: People who struggle with mental health issues like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are at a greater risk of struggling with polydrug abuse, often as a way to self-medicate symptoms of their condition. Abusing drugs in combination may ease or change symptoms of mental illness, like hallucinations or anxiety, for a very short period of time, but ultimately, abusing substances changes brain chemistry and can cause mental health symptoms to get worse. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are intimately tied to mood regulation, and reducing the brain’s ability to release and absorb neurotransmitters can lead to symptoms of a mood disorder, like depression or panic disorder.
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  • Infections: People who struggle with any substance abuse are at a greater risk for contracting infections. Some drugs, such as cocaine, can suppress the immune system; other drugs, like tobacco or marijuana, damage tissues, making them more susceptible to disease. Upper respiratory infections are common among people who smoke intoxicating substances, while bacterial skin infections are more likely in people who inject drugs into muscles or veins. People who inject drugs like heroin are less likely to use clean needles, so they are more likely to contract hepatitis B or C. Additionally, people who struggle with substance abuse have lowered inhibitions, and their ability to make decisions changes; they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, which increases the risk of contracting STIs.
  • Damaged relationships: Substance abuse or addiction can cause significant changes in behavior. The person who struggles with substance abuse may prioritize acquiring or taking drugs over spending time with friends and family. They may steal from or lie to those closest to them. A person intoxicated on drugs may become aggressive or abusive. Important relationships can be harmed, and loved ones may opt to cut off communication.

Polydrug Abuse Can Be Treated

Rehabilitation programs can help people overcome polydrug abuse. Medical detox and comprehensive therapy can help clients to end their dependence on substances of abuse and develop coping mechanisms to avoid relapse. Early intervention is the best way to prevent long-term damage from polydrug abuse.