Corporate Office:
2101 Magnolia Avenue South, Suite 518
Birmingham, AL 35205

What is Polysubstance Abuse?


Sometimes you instinctively know something isn’t quite right with a friend, a family member or colleague. You suspect potential drug or alcohol use but you feel helpless and don’t know how to approach the subject. In this article, we’ll give you some important information about what is called polysubstance dependence, signs to look for, and how you can help.

What is Polysubstance Abuse?

Polysubstance abuse refers to the use of multiple substances, including drugs and alcohol, often at the same time or within a short period. It can occur intentionally, such as combining substances to enhance the effects, or unintentionally, such as when a person is taking multiple medications without realizing the potential interactions. Polysubstance abuse can increase the risk of addiction, overdose, and other negative health outcomes. It’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional if you or someone you know is struggling with polysubstance abuse.

Sometimes, a person doesn’t have just one “drug of choice.” They may use several different substances at different times. This addiction to any kind of high is called “polysubstance dependence,” and the term refers to people addicted to intoxication itself, with no particular drug of choice. It can be alcohol, marijuana, heroin, opioids, prescription medication or a combination of all of the above – the user wants anything that creates an intoxicated state. Officially, polysubstance dependence is defined as abusing three or more substances for a period of 12 months or more.

What is the difference between Polysubstance Dependence and Abuse?

At the extremes, the difference between abuse and dependence are clear cut. The abuser goes through periods when he seems able to take it or leave it, using the substance in a controlled way or staying away from it altogether. Substance abuse eventually leads to substance dependence. The line between the two is crossed when the on-again-off-again binges turn into continuous use. At this point, the user’s motivation has changed from pleasurable recreation to needing the substance on a regular basis just to get through the day.

Damages of Dependence

Through brain imaging of people with a drug addiction, research has proved that repeated substance use changes the brain, including the parts of the brain that give a person self-control. These brain changes explain why quitting is so difficult, even when an addicted person feels ready.

Additionally, various diseases and disorders are more common in those who abuse multiple substances. For example, chronic diseases, such as hepatitis C, are often seen in heavy drinkers who inject drugs, and tobacco smokers who use cocaine are more at risk for heart attack.

What are the signs of Polysubstance Dependence?

Three of the following symptoms must be shown during a 12-month period to receive an official diagnosis of polysubstance dependence:

  • Tolerance: The user has to keep using more and more of a substance at one time to get high because the usual amounts are less effective.
  • Withdrawal: The user shows withdrawal symptoms when drugs stop being used; or the drug is used specifically to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inability to stop using/Loss of control: Repeated use of more drugs than planned. The user has unsuccessfully attempted to cut down or stop using the drugs or shows a persistent desire to stop using, but cannot.
  • Time: The person spends a lot of time studying drugs, obtaining drugs, using drugs, being under the influence of drugs, and recovering from the effects of drugs.
  • Interference with activities: The user has reduced the amount of time involved in recreational activities, social activities, and/or work because of the use of drugs.
  • Harm to self: The person continues to use substances despite having a noticeable physical or psychological problem caused by or made worse by the use of drugs.

Help and Treatment

Polysubstance addiction is complicated, but it is treatable. As with any course of treatment, it is important to identify the root cause of the polysubstance abuse. By exploring the origins of the addictive behavior, we can identify and address the true issues underlying the addiction and get the patient on a clear path to sober living.

If you or a loved one are exhibiting the signs of a polysubstance addiction, seeking treatment is the best thing you can do for everyone. We recommend you spend some time educating yourself about dependence and then calmly talk to your friend or loved one. Emphasize to them that it takes a lot of courage to seek help for a drug problem and that there is a lot of hard work ahead, but you will be there to help however you can. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that treatment works, and people recover every day. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully.

If you have question or are still unsure how to handle a dependence problem, please reach out to us. Bradford Health offers a no-cost consultation and in-patient and outpatient programs, as well as specialized treatment for medical workers, first responders and the military. We ask questions, listen carefully, gather information, and make recommendations to patients and their families free of charge. Don’t wait to give us a call.




Related Article

Polysubstance Addiction

Free Emergency Consultation