What is Polysubstance Abuse?

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Understanding Drug Dependence – What is Polysubstance Abuse or Dependence?

Polysubstance dependence is perhaps one of the most dangerous types of addictions. Apart from opening yourself up to the risks that the abuse of each substance has, conditional reasoning skills are severely impaired in people who suffer from polysubstance dependence. But what is polysubstance abuse and how do you know if someone has it?

Learn more about polysubstance abuse treatment and how it can help you or your loved one.

In this article, we will discuss what the condition is, the signs of symptoms, and what treatment options are available.

What is Polysubstance Abuse?

So, what is polysubstance abuse? Poly comes from a Greek word, meaning “many”. Therefore, polysubstance refers to the many substances, such as illicit drugs, alcohol and prescription medication. The answer to the question, “what is polysubstance abuse?” is the abuse or dependence to many substances as opposed to the addict preferring just one drug or substance.

Polysubstance abusers chase the “high” feeling that substances give, regardless of where that high comes from. Medically, a person must abused or be addicted to three or more substances before they are deemed to be a polysubstance abuser.

Signs and Symptoms of Polysubstance Abuse

The signs and symptoms of polysubstance abuse can point to a much larger problem that often requires intensive treatment to address.

The DSM-5 highlights the criteria for polysubstance dependence. In the manual, when if a person abuses three or more substances congruently and fit three or more of the following criteria with the last year, then they have polysubstance dependence:

  • Common withdrawal symptoms are experienced when cessation of use of any of the three or more drugs happens, which only goes away with further use.
  • They have developed a tolerance to the substances that they frequently abuse, which is a condition that causes the individual to have to use increasing amounts of each of the substances.
  • Even though they have psychological and physical health concerns caused by the abuse of the substance, use continues regardless of a desire to get clean.
  • A great deal of time is spent on acquiring their next fix, using drugs and recovering after the abuse.
  • Less and less time is spent with sober family members and friends as the addict prefers the company of other people who are abusing drugs too.
  • Frequently using more of each of the substances than the person intended to, or for longer than they wanted to.
  • Trying to stop substance abuse has failed even though the person wants to stop.

Polysubstance abuse is often misdiagnosed as straight-forward drug dependence. But through the answering of the question “what is polysubstance abuse?” and the understanding on the signs of the condition, one can find the help needed to beat the disease.

Symptoms of a polysubstance abuse, which are caused by dependence to each of the drugs, vary based on what drugs are being abused. Of course, a person who is addicted to just one drug such as alcohol would experience symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal; however, in the cause of polysubstance abuse, the user will experience a mixture of different withdrawal symptoms from each of the substance that they have become dependent on. Not only can this experience be intense and very difficult to cope with, but the combination of symptoms can prove to be very dangerous for the person’s wellbeing.

To better understand some of the withdrawal symptoms that one can expect, the following are some of the most common withdrawal symptoms in substance use disorder:

  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and poor memory
  • Racing heart
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating

These are just some of the most common symptoms. Of course, each substance has their own set of withdrawal symptoms that can be referred to for a better understand of what you can expect when detoxing from each substance.

Common Combinations of Substances That Are Abused Together

A person with a polysubstance abuse disorder is one who has become hooked on three or more substance. This can be a combination of any substance; however, there are combinations and substances that are most frequently present in such a case.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in polysubstance abusers. Along with alcohol, many people with the condition also commonly abuse heroin or cocaine. However, the combinations of drugs that are frequently taken are along the lines of stimulants, depressants, inhalants, alcohol and hallucinogens.

Causes of Polysubstance Abuse

Now that we’ve answered the question “what is polysubstance abuse?” another common question is what the causes are. Addiction is a very complex disease that often manifests uniquely, or is caused by a unique set of circumstances.

Some of the common causes of this condition are as follows:

  • Genetics – One of the leading causes of an addiction to this extent are genetic factors. If other family members or parents are diagnosed addicts, then the likelihood of the disease being passed down genetically is increased. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it is set in stone, but rather the person has a higher likelihood of developing an addiction after trying drugs or alcohol than a person without a genetic predisposition.
  • Peer pressure and age of use – Young adults are prone to addiction. This is because they are generally more exposed to drugs and are more likely to experiment. The younger that this experimentation occurs the more likely it is that an addiction will follow.
  • Enhancing drug effects – Another reason that people become polysubstance abusers is due to their attempts at increasing the effect of a drug. For example, if a person were to consume alcohol while on cocaine, the effects of cocaine last far longer than it would if they just had cocaine.
  • Co-occurring mental disorders – Co-occurring mental disorders are another major cause of addiction in general. If a person has some kind of mental disorder such as an anxiety disorder, if untreated, they are more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs for relief from their symptoms. Of course, this sets them down a path where symptoms aren’t properly treated and eventually become out-of-control, or to the point where drugs and alcohol are only adding to their mental problems and relief from their symptoms is very short lived.

Polysubstance Abuse Treatment

A person who is polysubstance dependent can have a host of problems in their life ranging from personal health issues and financial troubles to run-ins with the law and a perpetually deteriorating social life. ┬áThankfully, polysubstance abuse treatment is available that can help to address the areas of the person’s life that are affected by the abuse.

It starts with detox. Since detox can be challenging due to the three or more concurrent dependencies, a medical detox is the best solution. Through it, an addict can be monitored around-the-clock by qualified physicians and they can be given medication that drastically reduces the withdrawal symptoms during detox.

After detox, behavioral therapy is required. Therapy and counseling, whether in a group or private setting, can help the recovering addict to change their behavior and thinking so that they don’t feel that substance abuse is required to cope. If co-occurring mental disorders are present, these can then also be treated.

Finally, long-term maintenance is the key to beating addiction after leaving rehab. Along with relapse prevention strategies that are learned in rehab, a person can attend support group meetings or have follow-up therapy or counseling to help them stay clean and sober.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, get help right away. Make a phone call that will connect you to a professional drug treatment center. The call you make may save your life or the life of someone you love. Call us today at 1.800.429.7690.