What Is Polydrug Use and What Are the Side Effects?

Taking drugs is risky, whether you are prescribed them by a doctor or you’re buying them off the street; if misused, all come with an adverse set of side effects. So, when an individual takes two or more substances, the risk of experiencing adverse side effects increases – this is known as polydrug use.

There are many reasons why people wish to mix their drugs: maybe they want to experience an intense high of the desired effect or even to decrease the harmful effects of another drug. Either way, if a variety of drugs are taken, there is a significant increase in the risk of harm. Luckily, as more research is carried out, professionals can now treat substance abuse disorders, including the effects of polydrug use.

Polydrug Use – What Is It?

Polydrug use is the consumption of multiple drugs for recreational reasons; it is also referred to as polysubstance misuse. People can mix drugs for many reasons.Sometimes, it is intentionally mixing to increase or decrease the effects of another. Mixing drugs could also be unintentional, for example, when a person takes drugs that have been cut with other substances without them knowing. Other reasons include:

  • Using one drug to counteract the effects of another
  • Using a substance when the desired one is not available – maybe if withdrawal symptoms are present

Either way, there are many dangers of mixing drugs, and doing so increases the risk of complications, including an overdose. In 2019, nearly half of deaths related to a drug overdose involved more than one drug.

Dangers of Mixing Drugs

The side effects of polydrug use are dependent on a variety of things, such as the number of drugs used as well as what the substances are. Polydrug use can induce both pleasurable and undesirable effects; for example, although mixing stimulants may increase a user’s high, it also increases the risk of experiencing a heart attack.

Unpredictable Side Effects

When taking drugs, a person can never be certain as to how their body will react. This is intensified when mixing two or more different types of drugs, increasing the experience of unpredictable side effects. Side effects include:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Brain damage
  • Organ Failure
  • Mental health complications
  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness

Increased Risk of Overdose

When multiple drugs are misused, the risk of an overdose increases. Drugs have the ability to counteract or mask the effects of one another. This means that some users are unable to acknowledge when they have reached their limit, therefore increasing the risk of an overdose.

Complicated Treatment

If a person needs treatment for an overdose involving more than one drug, the procedure can be complicated. For example, if someone is overdosing on opioids, then the effects can be that quickly restores a person back to normal breathing and blocks the effects of opioids, saving them from an overdose. However, it may not be effective for an overdose of other substances.

Similarly, if undergoing substance abuse disorder treatment for polydrug use, treatment should be tailored accordingly which may alter medications that are given to help control or manage withdrawal symptoms.

Serotonin Syndrome

  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of pleasure, happiness, and can control our mood. Serotonin syndrome is a drug reaction that is caused by medications that increase levels of serotonin in the body. The syndrome is often caused by the combination of drugs that contain serotonin, both legal and illegal. Signs and symptoms range from mild to severe and include:
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle spasms

Common Combinations and Their Effects

Of course, any drug can be taken with another and the possible drug combinations are endless; however, there are some common combinations of polydrug use that have been recognised.

Alcohol With Other drugs

Alcohol is one of the most commonly mixed drugs in polydrug use. In fact, research has found that 11% of people with a substance abuse disorder also misused alcohol.

People who are using cocaine may combine it with alcohol to reduce the negative side effects, such as anxiety or twitching. Or the other way around, if someone has drunk too much alcohol, they may use cocaine to increase their energy and give them the ability to sober up to drink more. However, the combination of alcohol and cocaine can cause toxic levels in the liver and increases the risk of a heart attack, brain damage, or cardiac arrhythmia.

Mixing alcohol with another central nervous depressant increases the chance of respiratory failure. For example, the combination of heroin and alcohol enhances the effects of one another and therefore increases the risk of an overdose. This is caused by a loss of oxygen and blood to the brain and can result in permanent brain damage. Similarly, mixing with benzodiazepines also increases intoxication.

Cocaine and Heroin (Depressants and Stimulants)

The combination of heroin and cocaine is referred to as a ‘speedball’ and is popular due to the enhanced effects of each drug. Individuals who take this combination will experience the desired effects of both cocaine and heroin, subsequently creating a new high. People may also take one of the drugs to mask the effects of the other; however, this can make users unsure of how intoxicated they really are. This is dangerous as it causes a false sobriety and could result in an overdose.

Mixing Medications

Individuals could also mix prescription drugs, or over-the-counter medications, with one another or illegal substances. For example, the combination of opioids with benzodiazepines can result in someone’s breathing slowing down, increasing the risk of an overdose.

Also read: See a doctor in real-time with video consultations


Polydrug use is extremely dangerous; the longer you abuse drugs, the higher the chance of experiencing an overdose. Therefore, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Research has found that nearly 60% of those in substance abuse disorder treatment have partaken in polydrug use. You are not alone. It may seem daunting but after seeking help, you will receive the utmost compassion and care to kickstart your recovery journey.

There are a multitude of treatment options that could benefit you. Seek help today.