Addiction can take many forms. However, one of the most commonly misunderstood is polysubstance abuse. Polysubstance abuse refers to a situation in which an individual is abusing two or more addictive substances without having a clear preference for any specific one. Any combination of substances can be used, but most cases of polysubstance abuse involve alcohol to some extent.

Some research suggests that polysubstance abuse is most common in teens and young adults. Young people are often introduced to substance use via peer pressure and are more likely to seek out a “high” by any means necessary. However, it is important to remember that people of all ages and backgrounds can experience any form of substance abuse. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. 

Dangers of Polysubstance Abuse

Polysubstance abuse is dangerous because using multiple substances together increases the risk of side effects. For example, it is common for people to abuse both alcohol and prescription opioids such as Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin. Since alcohol and opioids are both classified as sedatives, this behavior can lead to:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low body temperature
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Increased risk of fatal overdose

Substance abuse of any type increases a person’s risk of serious chronic medical conditions, and polysubstance abuse further increases the risk of health issues. For example, hepatitis C is often seen in heavy drinkers who inject drugs, while people who abuse cocaine and smoke tobacco increase their risk of myocardial infarction.

Polysubstance abuse is also problematic for people who have co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. It’s common to try to self-medicate the symptoms of a mental health condition with drugs or alcohol, but substance abuse only temporarily masks the underlying problem. When multiple substances are being abused, there’s an increased risk of creating a cycle that amplifies the problems of both addiction and the co-occurring mental health condition.

Recognizing the Problem Can Be a Challenge

Polysubstance abuse can be hard for friends and family to recognize. Switching back and forth between substances makes it difficult to spot the signs of a problem, especially in the early stages where an individual has yet to experience serious consequences such as job loss, legal troubles, or a near overdose. However, if you’re worried about a loved one, trust your instincts. Addiction is a progressive illness, and subtle changes in mood and behavior are often indicative of a larger issue. \

Denial is a classic sign of addiction, so it’s not surprising that it can be difficult to get someone struggling with polysubstance abuse to admit they have a problem. Without a clear preference for one particular substance, they may insist that they could stop at any time if they wanted to and that you’re overreacting. Or, if you express concern about your loved one’s substance abuse, they may simply cut back on one substance and increase their abuse of another to compensate. An intervention may be needed to convince your loved one that treatment is necessary. 

Treatment Options

There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to treating addiction—especially when a person struggles with polysubstance abuse. At Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, we provide treatment personalized to fit the specific needs of the client. Our process begins with a detailed intake session where we discuss relevant factors such as the types of substances being abused, the client’s medical concerns, co-occurring mental health disorders, and insights gained from any past treatment experience.

We will often recommend inpatient medically managed detox for those with polysubstance abuse. Although withdrawal is typically uncomfortable but not physically dangerous, people who have been abusing multiple substances are at a higher risk of complications. A medically managed detox provides 24/7 supervision to ensure the process is done safely and that the client is kept as comfortable as possible. Vital signs are continually monitored, and medications can be given to address specific symptoms, such as antidepressants for mood fluctuations or anti-nausea medications to deal with vomiting and intestinal upset.

Following detox, our Pennsylvania residential addiction treatment center offers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help clients understand and modify the behavioral and thought patterns involved in substance abuse, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to address the effects of past trauma, family programs to strengthen the client’s support system, and 12-Step groups to provide peer support. Clients who graduate from residential treatment and feel they need more time before tackling the challenges of independent living are encouraged to utilize our extended care services.

Breaking free from the burden of addiction isn’t easy, but we’re here to help. Our services are grounded in the belief that long-term recovery is possible for everyone who desires it. Visit our tour page or browse our blog to learn more about what we have to offer.