What is Polydrug use and how to get the right treatment

Addiction We can Help Chalk Illustration

Polydrug use is when a person consumes more than one drug at once.

Sometimes described as polysubstance abuse, polydrug use can be profoundly dangerous to your physical and mental health and often refers to the abuse of multiple illicit drugs.

Polydrug use

Polydrug use is often intentional and can involve a person purposely taking multiple drugs such as cocaine and alcohol to get high.

However, in cases of prescription drugs, studies have shown that people on prescription medication may unintentionally mix substances.

Polysubstance use

For example, an individual may be prescribed multiple drugs for a health condition by their doctor without knowing how these drugs negatively interact with each other.

Or, a person may unintentionally mix alcohol with their prescription medication without knowing the dangers.

If you are taking prescription medication to manage a health condition, you must inform your doctor about any other drugs or medicines you might be taking, including alcohol consumption.

Intentional polydrug abuse

In most cases, polydrug abuse is intentional where people take multiple illicit drugs to experience a more significant high.

Essentially, polydrug use multiplies the euphoric effects of each drug, which increases the risk of becoming addicted.

girl putting joint in ashtray at crazy party

Rehab and drug addiction

Studies show that 57% of people in rehabilitation facilities have used more than one drug.

According to addiction specialists, the abuse of one drug increases the effect on the brain reward system, while mixing drugs further boosts the reward signals sent to the brain resulting in a more incredible high.

Substance use disorder risks

When people mix illicit drugs such as cocaine and alcohol or heroin and cocaine, it can trigger addiction or worsen an existing addiction problem.

Combining multiple substances increases your risk of addiction, but it can also be profoundly dangerous to your health, perhaps even life-threatening.

The dangers of drug combinations

Research shows that, in 2011, over half of all alcohol-related emergency room visits involved prescription and illicit drug use.

People are usually unaware of the severe risks associated with polydrug use, and this is true for those who unintentionally combine prescription drugs, both of which are lethal.

What are the dangers associated with polydrug use?

The dangers involved in polysubstance use significantly depend on the type of drugs a person abuses and the amount.

The consumption of multiple drugs increases the euphoria the user experiences, but it also increases the adverse effects.

Drug abuse

For example, if someone combines stimulant drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, they are likely to experience a much greater high than if they took one substance.

However, by mixing stimulants such as these, a person increases their risk of a heart attack.

Combined drug intoxication

Unfortunately, studies have shown that combined drug intoxication is a prevalent cause of emergency room admissions and countless deaths.

Researchers reported that the most significant risks associated with combined drug intoxication are death.

Side effects

The side effects associated with polydrug abuse include:

  • Coma
  • Heart problems
  • Stomach bleeding
  • Respiratory failure
  • Liver damage or organ failure
  • Heatstroke
  • Seizures
  • Brain damage

Other risks

The short and long-term effects of polydrug use will vary depending on the combination of drugs used.

However, generally, there are specific dangers associated with polydrug abuse, such as:

  • Acute health problems – according to research, various diseases are prevalent in those with polydrug use disorders such as hepatitis C, witnessed in heavy drinkers who inject drugs and cocaine users who smoke tobacco – both groups are at risk of a heart attack.
  • Complications arising from co-occurring mental health disorders – Concurrent disorders are when a substance use disorder occurs with another mental health condition, i.e. depression. Substance abuse can worsen a mental health condition, and equally, mental health problems can lead to more profound substance abuse.

Risk of an overdose in polydrug use

While those who engage in substance abuse are at risk of overdose, the chances increase in polydrug use or cases where multiple substances get abused.

When combining multiple drugs, each drug can conceal the effects of the other, which may result in people taking larger doses than usual as they do not experience the full effects of one drug or substance.

In the above scenario, it is possible for an overdose to occur since the user may take more significant quantities of a substance to get high.

Overdose from multiple drug abuse is more complicated to treat

It can be more complex to treat when someone overdoses due to consuming multiple substances.

For example, if someone overdoses on opioids, medical professionals sometimes reverse the adverse effects of excessive drug use through naloxone.

However, suppose the person consumes more than one drug, for example, alcohol or other stimulants. 

Then, it can be challenging to reverse the effects of an overdose, and the individual may require more specialized treatment.

Cooking heroin in a spoon over candle with syringe and foil in background

Dangers of mixing drugs

Studies from the Addiction Centre reported that, in 2007, 3.2 million Americans mixed and abused drugs.

Alcohol with other drugs

Other studies showed that alcohol mixed with drugs is one of the leading causes of hospital admissions.

The type of drugs that usually get mixed with alcohol include:


The consumption of heroin and alcohol together is prevalent among users.

Heroin and alcohol are Central Nervous System Depressants; thus, taking these drugs simultaneously results in various experiences and sensations than if the substances get taken in isolation.

Sadly, when heroin and alcohol get mixed, it increases a person’s risk of respiratory failure.

Other risks associated with alcohol and heroin consumption are blood loss and oxygen to the brain, leading to brain damage.


Similar to the effects of mixing alcohol and heroin, alcohol and opioids lower blood pressure and depress the respiratory system.

Mixing opioids and alcohol can also cause liver failure and intestinal bleeding.


Cocaine users often drink alcohol to reduce the drug’s adverse side effects, such as tension, anxiety, twitching, and muscle clenching.

Combining cocaine and alcohol may increase an individual’s physical energy, allowing them to consume more alcohol than usual.

However, the high that people experience in multiple drug use comes with many adverse side – effects as the person’s blood pressure increases, causing them to be aggressive, lack judgement, and have violent thoughts.

Young woman snorting cocaine

Physical risks

Combining cocaine and alcohol may lead to physical health consequences such as heart attack, cardiac arrhythmia, brain damage and stroke.

Heroin and cocaine

Mixing cocaine and heroin can create a false sense of sobriety as cocaine is a stimulant and heroin a depressant.

It often gets thought that combining cocaine and heroin cancels out the adverse effects of each drug, but such drug abuse can result in lethal outcomes.

Heroin and cocaine users often take the drugs simultaneously to enhance the effects, which causes different sensations and experiences than if the user took one substance.


Speedballing is a term used to describe the consumption of heroin and cocaine combined.

When consuming heroin and cocaine together, users often believe they are less high than they are, resulting in more substance abuse which puts them at risk of overdose.
Addiction specialists have reported that once the cocaine high wears off, the large quantities of heroin can cause respiratory failure in speedball users.

Teenage and adolescent polydrug abuse

Reports show that adolescents and teenagers are more likely to consume multiple substances than other age groups.

One study showed that teenagers were more likely to abuse alcohol and cannabis.

Teenage drug use and addiction

Another study revealed that 7 out of 10 young adults combined drugs and alcohol with prescription painkillers.

Addiction specialists say that adolescents are more prone to alcohol and drug addiction as their brains are still developing, putting them at higher risk of addiction disorders and overdose.

Addiction treatment

Substance abuse treatment programs usually involve medical detox as the first step.

Although medical detox is not effective as a stand-alone treatment – such interventions must be followed by a thorough addiction treatment program, which primarily involves therapy.

Glass bottle with alcohol hidden between file binders on shelves

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for all substance use disorders, including polydrug abuse.

CBT is an excellent therapy for substance use disorders and can help alter destructive thought and behavioural patterns, including those involved in substance use.

Mental health professionals must tailor addiction treatment programs to each individual as everyone will have different treatment needs and requirements.

Treating co-occurring mental health disorders

Co-occurring mental health issues must get addressed at the outset of treatment, which can help identify the root cause of addiction and the symptoms.

When people engage in comprehensive treatment programs that address all aspects of addiction and the pathways leading up to substance abuse, those engaging in polysubstance abuse can learn healthier coping methods, freeing them from the clutches of addiction.
Contact our addiction specialist team at Centre for Health and Healing to find out more.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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