What Does Poly Substance Use Disorder Look Like?

What Does Poly Substance Use Disorder Look Like?

Imagine a bowl of all your favorite candies. You grab a handful that consists of M&Ms, jolly ranchers, sour gummy worms, and snickers. You thought combining them all would taste great, but instead it’s a sour, crunchy chocolate that gives you a tummy ache. That is exactly what combining substances can look like expect the effects are a lot more extreme.

Poly substance use disorder, also known as polysubstance abuse, is a complex and challenging medical condition that arises from long-term use or misuse of multiple substances. Individuals with poly substance use disorder find it difficult to stop using these substances, despite the physical and social problems they may cause.

Understanding Poly Substance Use Disorder

Poly substance use disorder encompasses the use of two or more substances in combination. This can include the misuse of drugs such as cocaine, as well as the misuse of alcohol, tobacco, or prescription medications like opioids. The patterns of drug intoxication resulting from polysubstance use can have severe consequences, including strokes and other serious health issues. Some combinations of substances can even lead to further drug use, such as heroin use following sedative use.

Causes and Risk Factors

Several factors contribute to the development of poly substance use disorder. These include age (with younger individuals being at higher risk), lower levels of education, unemployment, being White, living with a disability, and the presence of anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders. Severe tobacco or alcohol use, as well as genetics, family history of substance use, stress, trauma, and accessibility of drugs, can also contribute to polysubstance use.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of poly substance use disorder typically manifest over a 12-month period and include at least two of the following:

  1. Misusing prescription medication: Taking a prescription medication in a way that was not intended, such as using it for non-medical purposes or taking higher doses than prescribed.
  2. Strong cravings or addiction: Having a strong urge or craving for substances and being unable to control when or how much is used. Spending significant amounts of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the substances and constantly thinking about the next use.
  3. Increased tolerance: Needing higher amounts of substances to achieve the desired effects.
  4. Dependency: The body becomes accustomed to the substances, leading to withdrawal symptoms when they are not used. Individuals may rely on substances to prevent or alleviate these symptoms.
  5. Inability to decrease or stop substance use: Attempts to quit or reduce substance use are unsuccessful.
  6. Continued use despite problems: Substance use continues despite causing problems or being dangerous. This can include engaging in risky behaviors, experiencing difficulties in various areas of life, and neglecting important activities.

Risks and Dangers

Poly substance use poses significant risks and dangers to individuals. Combining substances can amplify the severity of side effects, leading to increased negative health consequences. Mixing drugs can also lead to unpredictable interactions and toxicities, causing acute health problems and increasing the likelihood of developing chronic diseases. Co-occurring mental health disorders can worsen the effects of substance misuse, creating a cycle of worsening symptoms. Overdose is a serious concern, as certain substances can mask the effects of others, leading to unintentional consumption of higher doses and potentially life-threatening situations.

Seeking Treatment for Poly Substance Use Disorder

If you or someone you know is struggling with poly substance use disorder, it is essential to seek professional help. Treatment options are available to assist individuals in decreasing or stopping substance use and regaining control over their lives.

Diagnosing Poly Substance Use Disorder

Diagnosis of poly substance use disorder is typically based on a thorough assessment by healthcare providers. They will inquire about the substances being used, the frequency and duration of use, and any associated problems or symptoms. Blood or urine tests may be conducted to check the levels of substances in the individual's system and identify any physical complications resulting from substance use.

Treatment Options

Various treatment approaches can be effective in addressing poly substance use disorder. These options include:

  1. Detoxification programs: These programs utilize medication and therapies to ease withdrawal symptoms and manage anxiety when individuals stop using substances. Detoxification is often conducted in a hospital or supervised outpatient facility to ensure close monitoring and support.
  2. Gradual dose reduction: Healthcare providers may gradually decrease the dosage of substances to help individuals taper off their use and prevent withdrawal symptoms.
  3. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals manage depression and anxiety associated with poly substance use disorder. It can be delivered in one-on-one sessions with a therapist or in group settings.
  4. Motivational enhancement therapy: This therapy aims to enhance motivation and help individuals set and achieve positive goals related to their recovery.
  5. Twelve-step facilitation (TSF): TSF is a structured approach that guides individuals through the early stages of recovery. It involves working with a therapist in 12 to 15 sessions.

Safety Guidelines and Precautions

While undergoing treatment for poly substance use disorder, it is crucial to adhere to safety guidelines to protect yourself and others. These guidelines include:

  • Avoid combining substances: Mixing medicines, drugs, or alcohol can lead to dangerous interactions and increase the risk of overdose or respiratory depression.
  • Educate yourself about overdose signs: Learn to recognize the signs of an overdose based on the substances being used. Common signs include abnormal heart rate or breathing, heavy sweating, vomiting, changes in sleep patterns, and pale or clammy skin. It is essential to seek immediate medical help or call emergency services if an overdose is suspected.
  • Take prescribed medications as directed: Follow the prescribed dosage and frequency for medications, and do not exceed the recommended amount. If using a pain patch, remove the old patch before applying a new one, and avoid exposing the patch to sunlight.
  • Secure substances away from children: Store substances in a locked cabinet or in a location inaccessible to children to prevent accidental ingestion.

Where to Find Support and Additional Information

If you or someone you know is seeking support or more information about poly substance use disorder, the following resources can be helpful:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): AA provides support for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction. Visit their website at for more information.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA offers resources and assistance related to substance abuse and mental health. They can be reached at PO Box 2345, Rockville, MD 20847-2345 or through their website at

Remember, seeking professional help from healthcare providers and support systems is crucial in overcoming poly substance use disorder and embarking on the path to recovery.


Poly substance use disorder is a complex condition characterized by the long-term use or misuse of multiple substances. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and risks associated with polysubstance abuse is pivotal in seeking appropriate treatment.

By following safety guidelines, seeking professional support, and utilizing available resources, individuals can take the first steps towards recovery and reclaiming their lives from the grip of poly substance use disorder.


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