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Polysubstance Abuse

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2022.

Polysubstance abuse is the abuse of 2 or more drugs that cause impairment or distress. Examples include alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, hallucinogens such as mushrooms, or inhalants such as paint thinner. Prescribed medicines, such as opioids for pain or benzodiazepines for anxiety, are also commonly abused.


Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You feel you might harm yourself or others.

Return to the emergency department if:

  • You have a seizure.
  • You have chest pain and your heart is beating faster than usual.
  • You have new shortness of breath.
  • You are dizzy and lightheaded.

Call your doctor or therapist if:

  • You are using drugs and think you are pregnant.
  • You have withdrawal symptoms and want to start using drugs again.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Risks of polysubstance abuse:

  • Drug dependence is when you continue to use drugs, even when you know the risks. Polysubstance abuse can damage your heart, brain, lungs, liver, and gastrointestinal tract. You continue even when it causes problems with work, school, or relationships. You may have difficulty finding or keeping a job because of your drug dependence.
  • Drug tolerance is when you need to use more drugs, or use them more often, to get the effects you want. You may not be able to stop using the drugs. When you try to stop, you may have withdrawal symptoms and strong cravings for the drugs.
  • Drug overdose can occur when you take more drugs than your body can handle. This may be a small amount or a large amount. You can lose consciousness or have a seizure or stroke. Your heart can stop beating, or you can stop breathing. You may die from a drug overdose.


  • Withdrawal medicines may be given according to the types of drugs you are abusing. Withdrawal from drugs can cause serious, life-threatening side effects. Certain medicines can help decrease your withdrawal symptoms and your desire for the drug. Ask for more information about the withdrawal medicines you may need.
  • Mood stabilizers may be given to help prevent or treat depression or anxiety caused by drug abuse and withdrawal.
  • Take your medicine as directed. Contact your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him or her if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Follow up with your doctor or therapist as directed:

You may be referred to a specialist to treat health conditions caused by your drug use. This includes mental health, heart, or lung specialists. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.


You may need therapy and support to stop using drugs:

  • Cognitive and behavioral therapy helps you change your thinking and behavior. It can help you develop plans to avoid the situations that make you want to use drugs. It also helps you cope with the feelings of wanting to use drugs. You may have individual or group therapy.
  • Contingency management helps you set drug-free goals with a therapist. You will decide ways to celebrate your success when you reach a goal.
  • Family therapy and support groups allow you and your family members to talk to and be encouraged by other people affected by drug abuse. You and your family members may attend together or separately. Ask your healthcare provider for information about programs in your area.

How polysubstance abuse affects unborn or newborn babies:

  • If you are pregnant or get pregnant while using drugs, you may have a miscarriage or give birth early. Your baby may be born addicted to the drugs.
  • Do not breastfeed your baby if you use drugs. Drugs pass from your bloodstream into your breast milk and affect your baby's health. Talk with your healthcare provider if you are using drugs and breastfeeding.

For support and more information:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
    Web Address:
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
    PO Box 2345
    Rockville , MD 20847-2345
    Web Address:

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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