What You Should Know About Polysubstance Abuse

The majority of what you’ll read online about substance abuse and addiction treatment usually pertains to one substance (or substance category) or another. Whether it’s alcohol, heroin, or meth — more often than not, we’re talking about just one substance. But how many people do you know that use only one substance and nothing else?

This Redemption Recovery article explores the impact of polysubstance abuse and the special considerations it can have for addiction treatment and recovery. 

What is Polysubstance Abuse?

When a person is addicted to or misusing more than one substance, it is called polysubstance abuse. The reality is that most people living an addiction lifestyle rarely limit themselves to just one specific substance. Many have a “drug of choice”, a particular drug (or drug category, like opioids) they gravitate towards — but almost no one abuses one substance to the exclusion of all others. 

A large part of the concern about people combining different substances of abuse comes from the fact that many drug interactions can be unpredictable, dangerous, and even deadly. Even in the case when a person is using different substances at different times, they still may be exposing themselves to additional risk. 

For example, taking Vicodin and abusing alcohol. Even if you don’t use Vicodin and alcohol together — both drugs are known to do liver damage. Using them both can only serve to compound that risk.  

Polysubstance abuse is:

  • The use of two or more different substances to the point of intoxication and not in compliance with a doctor’s prescription. 
  • More common than many people realize and may be underreported by people who focus only on their “drug of choice”. 
  • Dangerous for several reasons, including compounding damage to your health and making dangerous interactions, magnification of effects, or overdose more likely. 

Polysubstance Abuse and Addiction to More Than One Drug

Polysubstance abuse can complicate the side effects and predictability of drug interactions when someone’s in active addiction. Drugs in the same category tend to amplify one another’s effects and this can be unpredictable. For example, fatal overdoses are more common among people who misuse opioids and benzodiazepines together than they are for users of either drug alone (although fentanyl contamination in many street drugs has blurred the line somewhat). 

It is not unusual for a person to be taking a controlled substance, such as Adderall as prescribed — but using another drug, like alcohol or opioids along with it. This is also polysubstance abuse. The fact that a doctor prescribed a medicine and you’re taking it in a prescribed dose does not offset the fact that you’re combining drugs in a way that the doctor never intended. Remember that recovery is about honesty first and foremost. 

Some common polysubstance abuse combinations include:

  • Opioids and benzodiazepines
  • Opioids and cocaine
  • Alcohol and cocaine
  • Alcohol and methamphetamine
  • Marijuana and psychedelic drugs

Raising Awareness About Polysubstance Abuse

While polysubstance abuse is common — we rarely hear that term outside of substance abuse treatment circles and that’s unfortunate. One of the important responsibilities we have here at Redemption Recovery, aside from providing treatment and outreach, of course, is raising awareness. 

Discussing polysubstance abuse openly is important for a number of reasons. The first is education. Working in the addiction treatment field, it can become easy to make incorrect assumptions about what most know or don’t know about addiction. While many people in active addiction may be remarkably well-informed in certain areas, it only takes a few pieces of critical missing information to increase the amount of risk someone is exposed to. 

Information About Polysubstance Abuse Can Save Lives

Ultimately the goal for anyone living with addiction should be to get sober, of course. Raising awareness is just as important for people who are choosing to remain in active addiction for now. Naturally, addiction has a way of compromising judgment. We all know that people engaged in substance abuse tend to be more likely to take dangerous risks (albeit to varying degrees) — but that does not mean people in active addiction will not heed warnings. 

Informing people about the dangers of combining opioids and benzodiazepines should be one of the key takeaways from the conversation. As should a general understanding that depressants will amplify other depressants unpredictably. Using alcohol and opioids together is at least as dangerous as combining opioids and benzos. 

Some people grappling with active substance abuse are aware of these compounding effects — which naturally also occur when stimulants are combined. But, they may be under the mistaken notion that combining drugs in different categories is somehow “safe” 

Recovery Begins with Decision Followed by Action

Recovery begins with a decision — but as they say, faith without works is dead. A decision has little impact without the action that should follow it. The window of opportunity when a person becomes willing to accept help for addiction can be fleeting. 

If someone you love has expressed willingness to get help or you find yourself in that place — don’t take a minute for granted. Strike while the iron is hot. 
Pick up the phone and call Redemption Recovery at (419) 528-8007

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