Polydrug use refers to when a person uses multiple drugs for recreational purposes. An individual who engages in polydrug use may use illegal drugs, legal drugs, or a mix of the two. For example, someone might have a cocaine misuse disorder while also drinking alcohol and misusing sleeping pills or antianxiety medication.

People use multiple drugs for many different reasons. In some cases, the goal is to amplify the effects of each drug. A person might also misuse multiple drugs to counteract one another, for example, by taking a stimulant, such as cocaine, and then using sleeping pills to calm down.

Alcohol is one of the most common drugs in polydrug use. A 2020 study reports that about 11% of people with a substance use disorder also misuse alcohol.

Polydrug use increases the risk of serious complications, including overdose. In 2019, almost half of drug overdose deaths involved more than one drug.

Keep reading to learn more about polydrug use, including the dangers of mixing drugs, common risk factors, and advice on seeking help for addiction.

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Polydrug use means mixing two or more drugs for recreational purposes. Doctors may also use the term polysubstance misuse.

Polydrug use may mean using two drugs at the same time or very close to one another. Some examples of polydrug use include:

  • using two drugs to amplify one another’s effects, such as taking two opioids at the same time
  • using one drug to counteract the effects of another, such as using sleeping pills to counteract the effects of methamphetamine
  • using one drug when another is not available, often when withdrawal symptoms appear
  • mixing drugs, such as lacing methamphetamine with fentanyl

All drugs have side effects. The more of them a person uses, the more potential side effects they may experience. Some of the risks of mixing drugs include:

  • Amplifying the effects of a drug: When a person mixes two drugs with similar effects, the side effects may be more intense. For example, opioids can suppress breathing. Using multiple opioids may cause a person to stop breathing altogether.
  • Masking the effects of one or more drugs: When people use one drug to cope with the effects of another, it can mask dangerous side effects or even make it more difficult to detect an overdose.
  • Unpredictable side effects: When people mix drugs, especially two or more different types, the side effects are unpredictable. There is no way to mix recreational drugs safely or anticipate possible side effects.

Some potential side effects include:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • fatal overdose
  • brain damage
  • organ failure
  • breathing that slows or stops
  • depression, anxiety, delusions, or hallucinations
  • rapid or slow heart rate
  • pregnancy complications
  • fainting and loss of consciousness

Anyone can develop an addiction to drugs. Drug addiction is a major risk factor for polydrug misuse since people who have one addiction may develop another. They may even try to manage the symptoms of their addiction with another drug. Therefore, misusing potentially addictive drugs is a key risk factor.

Some drug misuse risk factors include:

  • Minority status: This includes experiencing racial discrimination, cultural and language barriers, institutionalized discrimination, and lack of access to housing and quality healthcare.
  • Community stress: People living in unsafe areas with high crime, regions with high unemployment, and high poverty communities are more vulnerable.
  • Family history: A family history of drug misuse correlates with a higher risk of use and misuse.
  • Family environment: An abusive family, social isolation, frequently moving, or an unstable family environment all raise the risk of drug misuse and addiction.
  • Early risk factors: People who had behavioral or health issues in childhood, problems with peers, and difficulties at school are more vulnerable to drug use and addiction.

Some risk factors for polydrug use include:

  • Addictive drug prescriptions: People taking potentially addictive prescription drugs are more likely to misuse them. They may also misuse them with other drugs. Benzodiazepines, a group of antianxiety drugs, and opioids feature prominently in polydrug misuse disorder.
  • Mental illness: Some people use drugs to cope with mental illness. Certain conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, have strong correlations with the risk of polydrug misuse disorder.
  • Life stressors: Certain life stressors, such as living in poverty or not being in employment, may increase the risk of drug misuse disorder, including polydrug misuse disorder.
  • Behavior issues: In adolescents, school difficulties, conduct problems, and depression are significant polydrug use risk factors.

A person can become addicted to any addictive substance, including multiple substances or combinations of them.

Addiction changes the brain’s motivational system and alters the way it responds to pleasure and reward. Over time, an individual becomes dependent on a substance to feel pleasure and eventually feel normal.

A person with multiple addictions may crave the two drugs together or each drug in different contexts. For example, they might crave cannabis only when coming down from cocaine.

Some common examples of polydrug use include:

  • Drinking alcohol with other drugs: This may occur when a person has a drug addiction and also uses alcohol recreationally.
  • Mixing prescription and illegal drugs: An individual might use both drugs recreationally or have a legitimate drug prescription that they use with an illegal drug. For example, they might take an opioid for pain along with alcohol or cannabis.
  • Mixing depressants and stimulants: Some people mix multiple classes of drugs to counteract the effects of one drug. For instance, they might misuse Adderall and then use alcohol or sleeping pills to calm down.
  • Mixing similar types of drugs: A person may mix multiple drugs from the same drug class to intensify the effects, such as taking multiple types of opioids to deal with pain.

Polydrug use can be deadly. People who experience potentially dangerous symptoms, such as breathing difficulties, intense confusion, chest pain, or loss of consciousness, should seek emergency care.

Addiction is a treatable disease, but people cannot will their way out of it. Individuals who think they may have an addiction should speak with a doctor or psychotherapist to explore their options.

It is important to note that addiction is not a personal failing. It is a sickness.

Some signs a person might need help include:

  • They keep misusing drugs despite negative consequences.
  • They keep trying to quit but feel unable to do so.
  • Friends or family have expressed concern about their drug use.
  • Drug use has negatively affected their health, finances, or relationships.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

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There are many options for treating addiction, and the right treatment depends on a person’s lifestyle, personality, addiction, budget, and preferences. Some potential treatment options include:

  • Inpatient rehab: This comprehensive approach offers a variety of treatment options, including therapy and medical care, in one supportive setting. A person lives at rehab until they become sober, often for weeks or even months.
  • Support groups: These support and encourage people to get sober. They do not provide medical treatment but remain a popular option for many different addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous is one example, with many other local groups.
  • Psychotherapy: Therapy can help a person better understand the role of addiction in their life, identify strategies for coping with stress, and offer support as a person works to get sober.
  • Medication-assisted treatment: This approach uses medication to help wean an individual off their drug of choice. Medication can reduce symptoms of withdrawal, making sobriety easier.

Addiction is a serious and life threatening medical condition.

Polydrug addiction intensifies the traditional side effects of addiction and drug use. People who die of overdoses often do so while misusing multiple drugs.

Individuals can avoid polydrug misuse by speaking with a doctor about all drugs they use before getting any new prescriptions. If a person experiences side effects from drug use, it is important to avoid self-medication and instead consult a health provider.

Substance misuse disorder is a treatable medical condition. Help and support are available, but a person must be willing to seek care.