Polysubstance Abuse

Polysubstance Abuse and Dependence

Someone with polysubstance dependence is using three or more substances, with at least one of the substances commonly being alcohol. As alcohol is one of the oldest and most widely used psychoactive drugs, a lot of people fail to realize the dangers of mixing it with other substances. Furthermore, it’s common for people to drink heavily or binge drink without even realizing it. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as, “5 or more alcoholic drinks for males or 4 or more alcoholic drinks for females on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past month.” 

Although drinking has gone down in the United States in many groups, the drinking culture is still prevalent. This is particularly the case for young people in certain settings like schools, universities, or various social events. Many people who consume alcohol are also using other substances, illegal and legal. They do so without realizing the negative effects of mixing the substances they are using. When someone engages in binge drinking the risks increase significantly. Alcohol is a depressant, which many people understand to relate to mood and depression. That is a possible effect, but it also means that it will depress the central nervous system (CNS), which causes actions like suppressed or slowed breathing and impaired motor and cognitive function.

Alcohol and Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are primarily used to treat anxiety, panic disorders, seizures and they are even sometimes used with alcohol withdrawal. They are meant for short-term use, however not only are prescriptions increasing, long-term prescriptions have increased as well. It’s possible for someone to develop dependence early with use, with the possibility of psychological dependence and physical dependence. The longer use continues, the increased likelihood of dependence and addiction. 


Possible side effects of use includes:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Slowed breathing

Experiencing these side effects will vary from person to person. What is more, the severity of the side effects will also vary. It is dangerous to combine the use of these drugs with alcohol, for example: Xanax and alcohol and Valium and alcohol. It’s possible for this to contribute to what is known as combined drug intoxication. Death usually occurs as a result of some combination of the substances suppressing breathing. The combined substances typically increase the toxicity or negative effects of the other and alcohol can significantly increase the severity of symptoms.

Alcohol and Opioids

Opioids are one of the most commonly prescribed prescription drugs. Prescriptions seemingly flooded communities before most people realized how addictive they are. Most people in America are now aware of the opioid crisis. While a lot of public attention and resources are now dedicated to fighting it, there is still a lot of work to be done. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.” Just like alcohol and benzos, a possible side effect of opioids is also suppressed breathing. This makes the combination of alcohol and opioids incredibly dangerous. Further, alcohol, benzos, and opioids increase the risk of overdose even more. 

The CDC warns against prescribing both benzos and opioids if can be helped. Despite this, they are frequently prescribed together and NIDA found, “More than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines…” Alcohol, benzos, and opioids are all sedatives and a possible effect is suppressed breathing. Even just alcohol and opioids is a dangerous mix, with the CDC also stating that there is no safe level of using both substances. Unfortunately, many people do not know or understand the full dangers of alcohol use. It doesn’t take as much as people would think for alcohol to begin to negatively affect someone. When you add in other substances, including substances beyond just opioids and benzos, you are drastically increasing the risks of all substances involved.

Causes Behind Polysubstance Abuse

For a number of people, they use alcohol to cope with issues like anxiety. When someone is also using benzos for the same purpose, it seems normal to combine the use of two drugs. If both help with anxiety, then what’s the harm? As previously stated, opioids and benzos alone are a potentially dangerous combination, yet they are frequently prescribed together. Opioids are known most commonly as being used for pain relief. It’s possible many people dealing with significant pain are also dealing with anxiety, where they are then prescribed benzos as well. With benzos and opioids carrying a serious risk for addiction, someone might reach a point where they are not worried about being careful of mixing alcohol. There are an incredible number of substances beyond just the three mentioned above which also potentially cause serious health risks when combined.

For most people, they start out using these substances with good intentions. They want to treat and manage health problems, which is normal and understandable. NIDA explains that in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies assured the medical community that patients wouldn’t become addicted to opioids. Because of this, doctors prescribed opioids at higher rates. Furthermore, NPR found that many primary care doctors are prescribing benzos do so without proper guidelines.

Treatment

Each person is unique and while there are common effects and interactions from substance use, the reaction each person has will not necessarily be the same. Alcohol and drugs cause different reactions in people depending on a number of factors. Because of this, someone might be okay (meaning at least they aren’t at risk of overdose or any initial complications) using a substance, or mixed substance. However, then the next person has a serious reaction or is at risk for overdose. It’s also possible for the purity of substances to impact how someone reacts. Very likely, especially with polysubstance abuse, people see others mixing various substances and assume they will likewise be alright. 

Addiction is complex and the reasons behind it are just as complex. A lot of studies are just now beginning to help us understand the many different factors. There are many other substances aside from the substance substance mentioned above, including many that are illegal, that also play a part in polysubstance abuse. Someone using multiple substances likely needs professional help. If you or a loved one needs help, reach out today.

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