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Using more than one drug at a time is known as polydrug use. This intensifies the effects of any individual drug and makes them more dangerous. It also can create new, more euphoric highs. For example, alcohol can intensify the effects of Painkillers, but taking these drugs together makes it more likely that the user will stop breathing.
In 2011, over half of all alcohol-related emergency room visits involved illicit and prescription drugs.
People often don’t realize or understand the risks of combining substances. Even unintentional prescription drug combinations can be lethal.
When someone uses more than one drug at a time, it is known as a polydrug use disorder. Dr. Ashish Bhatt, MD, explains the dangers of mixing drugs, and how someone with a polydrug use disorder can get help.View All Videos
The risks of polydrug use depend on the types and amounts of drugs mixed. Combining drugs amplifies pleasurable and negative effects. Mixing Stimulants, such as Ecstasy and Cocaine, can increase the user’s high, but also their risk of heart attack.
The greatest risk of polydrug use is “combined drug intoxication.” Combined drug intoxication is a common cause of emergency room visits and has claimed the lives of countless individuals. The greatest risk of combined drug intoxication is death.
Some of the side effects of combining drugs include:
Mixing drugs severely depletes the brain’s feel good and calming chemicals. This can spark behavioral issues such as depression and anxiety.
If you have a polydrug problem and suffer from a mental health disorder like depression, you need treatment that tackles both issues at once. Learn more about dual diagnosis now.
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Teens are the most likely group to mix drugs. One study found that 7 out of 10 teenage drug users combined prescription Painkillers with drugs and alcohol. These teens were also more likely to abuse Marijuana and get drunk. The teenage brain is also more susceptible to addiction because it is still developing. Teens who combine drugs put themselves at an even higher risk of addiction and overdose.
Finding help for a teen who is struggling with polydrug use can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Many parents find that a good starting point is online therapy. Online therapy can provide parents, and teens, with high-quality mental health care from the comfort of their own homes. While online therapy on it’s own may not be a fix-all solution to polydrug use, it can help lay the foundation for a successful recovery.
In 2007, 3.2 million Americans mixed and abused drugs. The consequences of polydrug use vary with each combination.
A report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network revealed that the majority of hospital admissions for prescription drugs involved alcohol. Drugs that are often combined with alcohol include:
People who combine Cocaine with alcohol often do so to reduce Cocaine’s negative side-effects, such as anxiety, tension, clenching, or twitching. In some cases, a person who consumes too much alcohol may take Cocaine to increase their physical energy and/or give them the ability to drink more than they usually would be able to. Additionally, when intoxicated from alcohol, the use of Cocaine can reduce some of the negative effects caused by alcohol intoxication, making it easier to handle larger amounts of alcohol. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that over half of Cocaine-dependent individuals also suffered from alcohol dependency.
One of the most dangerous side-effects of combining alcohol with Cocaine is the risk of what occurs when these 2 drugs are metabolized through the liver simultaneously. The organ will produce cocaethylene, which can build up in the body, resulting in major organ system stress, particularly the cardiovascular system and liver itself. Cocaethylene temporarily enhances the high associated with both Cocaine and alcohol; however, this euphoria also increases blood pressure, aggression, violent thoughts, and poor judgment. It can build up to toxic levels in the liver and has been linked to sudden death. Additional consequences include heart attack, death of blood vessels and brain tissue (leading to brain damage, stroke or aneurysm), intracranial hemorrhage, heart disease, and cardiac arrhythmia.
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Alcohol and Heroin are both Central Nervous System Depressants. Using both Heroin and alcohol together enhances the effects of each drug, and at the same time results in different sensations and experiences than using either drug alone. Taking these drugs together raises the chances of respiratory failure. An overdose of Heroin and alcohol can also cause a dangerous loss of oxygen and blood to the brain. This can lead to permanent brain damage.
Adderall, Ritalin, and other prescription Stimulants produce effects similar to Cocaine when mixed with alcohol. A user’s heart rate can spike when mixing alcohol and Stimulants. This can lead to immediate and long-term heart complications.
Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, have effects similar to alcohol. Both substances act on the same neurotransmitters in the brain, creating the combined effect that increases intoxication. Because Benzodiazepines and alcohol are Central Nervous System Depressants, combining the 2 increases the risk of respiratory failure, coma, or death.
Alcohol enhances the effects of Sleeping Pills. Knowing this, some people intentionally mix alcohol and Sleeping Pills to make their medication more “effective.” Sleepwalking injuries, coma, and death are more likely when mixing alcohol and Sleeping Pills.
Both alcohol and Opioids, such as Vicodin, depress the respiratory system and lower blood pressure. The risks of mixing these drugs are comparable to Heroin and alcohol. Painkillers also contain Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen. Mixing alcohol with these substances can lead to stomach bleeding and liver damage.
Combining Heroin and Cocaine is often called a “speedball” or “speedballing.” Individuals often combine Heroin with Cocaine in order to enhance the effects of each drug while at the same time causing different sensations and experiences than using either drug alone (creating a new high in itself). People also combine Heroin (a Depressant) and Cocaine (a Stimulant) hoping that each drug will cancel out each other’s negative effects. While this may be effective, it often leads speedball users to believe they are less intoxicated than they are. This false sense of sobriety has caused many people to overdose. The effects of Heroin are longer lasting than Cocaine. Large doses of Heroin can cause respiratory failure when the Cocaine wears off.
Cocaine and Ecstasy are both Stimulants. Taken together, Cocaine and Ecstasy increase the user’s rush. Cocaine and Ecstasy also increase the user’s heart rate and risk of heart attack or stroke. Mixing any type of Stimulant, from prescription Adderall to Meth, can have these effects.
Polydrug use is common in people attempting to self-medicate. People may even mix prescription drugs obtained from their doctor. Mixing prescription drugs can have serious side effects including fatal overdose. Adding alcohol or illicit drugs to the mix escalates the dangers of mixing prescriptions.
Polydrug use multiplies the rewarding effects of drugs, increasing the chances of becoming addicted.
According to one study, 57% of people in rehab have used more than one drug.
Continued use of one drug reinforces the effect on the brain reward system. Introducing another drug into the mix boosts the effect on the reward system. This can spark an addiction or make an existing addiction stronger.
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If you or someone you love has an addiction to multiple substances, you should consider treatment as soon as possible. Call a treatment provider to learn about your treatment options.
Jeffrey Juergens earned his Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor from the University of Florida. Jeffrey’s desire to help others led him to focus on economic and social development and policy making. After graduation, he decided to pursue his passion of writing and editing. Jeffrey’s mission is to educate and inform the public on addiction issues and help those in need of treatment find the best option for them.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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