What Is Polydrug Use?

Polydrug use is a term referring to the dangerous practice of using more than one substance at a time.

The CDC estimates at least 250 Americans die every day from drug use.

People often don’t realize or understand the risks of combining substances, but the results, even with unintentional prescription drug combinations, can be lethal.

Reasons For Mixing Drugs

The main reason people partake in polydrug use is to create enhanced effects and more euphoric highs. For example, alcohol can intensify the effects of painkillers. However, taking these drugs together makes it more likely that the person will experience adverse effects that can be detrimental to the user’s health.

People may mix drugs for other reasons, including:

  • Substituting the substance of choice for another that is easier to access
  • Intending to reduce dependance on one substance by substituting it for another
  • Trying to cancel out the effects of one substance

Whatever the reason, polydrug use is a dangerous practice that can lead to many adverse consequences.

The Dangers Of Polydrug Use

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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.

Dangers Of Polydrug Use

The risks of polydrug use depend on the specific types and amounts of drugs mixed. The greatest risk of polydrug use is known as “combined drug intoxication,” which is a common cause of emergency room visits and has claimed the lives of many individuals.

Some of the side effects of combining drugs include:

Addiction To More Than One Drug

Aside from the physical dangers, polydrug use also increases the likelihood of addiction to one or more substances. Since polydrug use multiplies the rewarding effects of drugs in the brain, it increases the likelihood of becoming addicted. Continued use of one drug reinforces the effect on the brain’s reward system. Therefore, introducing another drug may boost the effect on the reward system, which can spark a new addiction or make an existing addiction stronger. This phenomenon puts one at high risk for polysubstance use and to develop a strong addiction to multiple drugs.

Common Drug Combinations

In 2021, 22% (61.2 million people) of the US population used illicit drugs. It was found that at least half of those were diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD) and likely mixed other substances while using.

Alcohol And Other Drugs

The majority of hospital admissions for prescription drug use also involved alcohol. It is estimated that 40% of adults took another drug with alcohol in 2023, which can be a deadly combination. Drugs that are often combined with alcohol include the ones below.


People who combine cocaine with alcohol often do so to reduce cocaine’s negative side effects, such as anxiety, tension, or twitching. In other cases, a person who consumes too much alcohol may take cocaine to increase their physical energy and give them the ability to drink more than they usually would be able to.

Combining cocaine and alcohol is extremely dangerous, as it can stress major organ systems, particularly the cardiovascular system, which is responsible for the functions of the heart and liver. The combination of these two drugs increases blood pressure, aggression, violent thoughts, and poor judgment. These risks can lead to a stroke, brain damage, heart attack, and sudden death.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, produce effects similar to cocaine when mixed with alcohol. When combining stimulants and alcohol, one’s heart rate can dramatically spike, increasing the risk of immediate and long-term heart complications, such as arrhythmia, stroke, heart attack, or death.


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 and sedation. Since benzodiazepines and alcohol are both central nervous system depressants, combining the two increases the risk of respiratory distress, respiratory failure, coma, or death.

Sleeping Pills

Alcohol also enhances the effects of sleeping pills, as they both have sedating effects. With this knowledge, some people intentionally mix alcohol and sleeping pills to try to make their medications more “effective.” It is dangerous to do so, and risks of mixing alcohol with sedatives or sleeping pills can include sleepwalking injuries, coma, and death.


Both alcohol and opioids, such as heroin, Vicodin, oxycodone, or methadone, depress the respiratory system and lower heart rate and blood pressure. Opioid painkillers also sometimes contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which can lead to stomach and liver bleeding and damage when mixed with alcohol.

Heroin And Cocaine (Speedball)

Combining heroin and cocaine is often called a “speedball” or “speedballing.” Individuals often combine the two, which are a depressant and a stimulant, to enhance the effects of each drug while also causing different sensations and experiences than using either drug alone.

Those that combine these two drugs often hope that each drug will cancel out each other’s negative effects, which leads to the false belief that they are less intoxicated than they are. This false sense of sobriety puts one at a high risk of an overdose, as it places great stress on the body to deal with the competing effects. Speedballing can lead to increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, rapidly increased body temperature, delirium, seizures, heart attack, stroke, and death.

Cocaine And Ecstasy

Cocaine and ecstasy are both stimulants. When taken together, these two drugs can increase the user’s high and can increase the risk of serotonin syndrome. Side effects of serotonin syndrome can range from mild ones, such as mental confusion and hyperactivity, to more serious side effects, such as rapid heartbeat, fever and sweating, and muscle spasms.

Prescription Polydrug Use

Polydrug use is common in people attempting to self-medicate, and therefore, some may even mix previously prescribed drugs (often opioids) from their doctor, known as prescription polydrug use. Doing this may have serious side effects, including a fatal overdose.

Teen Polydrug Misuse

Teens are the most likely population to combine drugs, with a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs finding that seven out of ten teenage drug users combined prescription painkillers with other drugs and alcohol. These teens were also more likely to misuse marijuana and alcohol simultaneously. The teenage brain is also more susceptible to addiction, as it only finishes developing and maturing in the mid to late 20s. Teens who mix drugs put themselves at an even higher risk of addiction and overdose later in life.

Find Treatment Today

Polydrug use is a dangerous practice that can increase your chance of medical emergencies and overdose. If you or someone you love has an addiction to one or more substances, you should consider treatment as soon as possible.

Contact a treatment provider to learn about your treatment options and get started on the road to recovery today.