Substance abuse rehab programs are often thought to be full of people battling addiction, but that’s not always the case. There are other high-risk behaviors people can engage in involving substances that don’t always fit into the classical definition of addiction. One of these is something called polysubstance abuse.
In this piece, we’ll explore the definition, frequency, and risks of polysubstance use to clarify the implications of dangerous habits like this one. This is meant to highlight the fact that any time you or someone you know is taking part in high-risk behaviors involving drugs and alcohol, timely intervention and treatment is the safest and best path to follow.
Defining Poly-Drug Use
The definition of poly-drug abuse is pretty easy to understand. Many people have one drug of choice, but this isn’t always the case. Polysubstance abuse refers to the habitual abuse of more than one substance at a time. This can be any combination of drugs and alcohol.
What polysubstance abuse isn’t is the occasional mixing of drugs with other drugs or drugs and alcohol. This is definitely a high-risk behavior, but to fit the definition of polysubstance abuse, the action has to occur frequently over a longer period of time.
There may also be times when a person technically using more than one type of drug doesn’t meet the definition of polysubstance abuse. For example, it’s not uncommon for a person with an opioid use disorder to use any prescription painkiller they can get their hands on. Because the drugs being used are similar to each other, though, it’s not thought to fit the profile of poly-drug abuse.
Polysubstance abuse also isn’t synonymous with addiction. Long-term habitual use of multiple drugs can mean a person becomes polysubstance dependent, but this doesn’t always mean they’re addicted to the substances they’re using.
When polysubstance abuse does lead to addiction, it’s sometimes called cross-addiction.
Why Does Poly-Drug Use Occur?
Sometimes, a person will use multiple substances at the same time because they like how it feels better than using one or the other. In other cases, substance abusers just use whatever they can get their hands on as an escape or method of coping with their lives.
Polysubstance Abuse vs Dual Diagnosis: What’s the Difference?
Many people mix up the concepts of poly-drug abuse and dual diagnosis because they both deal with issues that need to be treated simultaneously.
There’s a key difference, however. Dual diagnosis — also known as a co-occurring disorder — describes a situation where a person is battling a mental health condition at the same time as a substance use disorder. In polysubstance abuse, the person is struggling with two substance abuse disorders, and any co-occurring mental health condition is not relevant.
There are cases where someone may seek treatment for poly-drug abuse and a co-occurring mental health condition, however. This is polysubstance abuse and dual diagnosis simultaneously.
How Common Is Poly-Drug Use?
Compared to the statistics for addiction, abuse and overdose that exist for a single substance or class of substances, there isn’t as much information on polysubstance use. However, we know that in 2016, 80% of opioid-overdose deaths involved another substance. Of these overdose deaths, 78% involved another opioid, 21% involved cocaine, 11% involved alcohol and 5% involved a psychostimulant other than cocaine.
Based on some studies and articles written and published about drug abuse, it seems like poly-drug abuse is fairly common. One study published in 2020 explored the frequency of co-occurring opioid and non-opioid drug abuse and found that “polysubstance abuse is ubiquitous among those with opioid use disorder.”
Another study explored the prevalence of poly-drug use among club-going young adults and found that many members of this population use multiple drugs habitually to enhance their enjoyment of a night out.
The Risk of Polysubstance Overdose
There’s no shortage of articles written about the dangers of mixing drugs with alcohol or other drugs. Most people know that when two or more types of substances are used in a single session, the danger of overdose is greater than when only one substance is used.
There are not many widely agreed-upon statistics about poly-drug use, but combinations of different substances are nothing new in overdose statistics. One study from 2014 found a recent uptick in fatal overdoses stemming from mixing opioids and benzodiazepines. These are both depressants, but they act on different parts of the brain.
Complications in Treatment
Polysubstance abusers need a different approach than the average client at a rehab center, similar to dual diagnosis cases.
The first place where treatment should be handled with extra attention is during detox. Some drugs have very harsh withdrawal periods that necessitate medical oversight to avoid severe reactions. But even when substances have the potential for fatal complications — alcohol, for example — medical professionals know what to look for to intervene. It may not be as straightforward when addiction to multiple different substances comes into play.
Like with dual diagnosis, treatment for multiple substance use disorders has to happen simultaneously. Typically, in addiction counseling, part of the mission is to explore when and why a person started using their substance of choice. With poly-drug users, there’s more to unpack, and it may be more difficult to truly understand the condition.
Is relapse more common in cases of polysubstance abuse? Well, the data just isn’t there to know the answer. What we can say is that relapse in these cases may present a greater threat because the user is putting themselves at risk for deadly drug interactions once again.
Why Seeking Help Is So Important
Any time a person is mixing drugs or alcohol with other drugs, there’s an increased risk of overuse and unsafe toxicity. That means the risk of fatal overdose or complications and interaction are higher, making it a priority to get help as soon as possible.
The problem is, poly-drug users may not see their habits as a comparable issue to someone who only uses heroin, for example. They think because they use a variety of substances, they aren’t in the category of people who should seek treatment for addiction.
It may take arming yourself with more information about dangerous drug interactions and the risks of poly-drug abuse to get them to see why their lifestyle isn’t sustainable or conducive to their health and well-being.
Poly-Drug Treatment at FHE Health
If you or a loved one is struggling with polysubstance abuse, it’s never too soon to get help from trained professionals. We treat the complexities of dual diagnosis and poly-drug cases with the attention they deserve because we understand the importance of providing the right type of care to those in need.