Dangers of Polydrug Use

Dangers of Polydrug Use

Dangers of Polydrug Use

Dangers of Polydrug UsePolydrug use is a highly hazardous form of substance abuse that involves either simultaneous use of two or more drugs, or use of two or more drugs within a narrow timeframe. In addition to illegal drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy, this practice can include the use of alcohol and/or a variety of legal drugs such as amphetamines, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates. Polydrug use commonly increases the danger of the substances involved, and even a single instance of this type of substance abuse can trigger serious or catastrophic health effects. People who die from polydrug use succumb to a condition known as multiple drug intoxication (MDI) or combined drug intoxication (CDI).

The Basics

Drug users participate in polydrug use for a variety of reasons. In some cases, this drug-taking behavior occurs when a user wants to heighten the effects of a drug already in his or her system. In other cases, it occurs when a user takes a given substance in order to decrease or counterbalance the effects of another drug. Sometimes, drug users begin polydrug use in an attempt to replace the effects of preferred substances that aren’t currently available. In addition, drug users may start taking multiple substances in order to go along with the expectations of their social or peer group.

When researchers at pharmaceutical companies develop drugs, they test the effects of these drugs before bringing them to market. Typically, this testing involves extensive examination of a drug’s therapeutic effects, as well as its potential to create unwanted or dangerous side effects. In addition, pharmaceutical company personnel examine a drug’s potential for harmful interactions with other types of drugs. However, while drug makers (and the government agencies that regulate these manufacturers) compile immense amounts of information on dangerous interactions, they can’t possibly examine all potential drug outcomes.

Polydrug use is dangerous, in part, because it frequently triggers known hazardous or deadly interactions between specific substances. It’s also dangerous because it can include drug combinations never studied by doctors or researchers; as a result of this lack of testing and research, no one can accurately predict the types of interactions these unique drug combinations may produce. In addition to known or unknown interactions between various drugs, factors that can influence the outcome of polydrug use include the method of drug use, drug dosage and purity, frequency of drug use, the personality of the user, the user’s mood and expectations, and the setting in which drug use occurs.

Known Drug Interactions

Depressants are substances that depress (reduce) normal levels of activity in your body’s central nervous system (CNS), which ultimately controls the basic functions that keep you alive. Along with opioids (narcotics) and the two sedative-hypnotic drug classes known as barbiturates and benzodiazepines, this group of substances includes alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol). Polydrug use of depressants can reduce CNS function to the point where you either fall into a coma, you stop breathing, or your heart stops beating.

Stimulant drugs commonly involved in polydrug use include cocaine, methamphetamine, and a variety of substances classified as amphetamines. These drugs achieve their effects by increasing activity in the central nervous system, and their use typically produces side effects that include blood vessel constriction (narrowing), heart rate increases, breathing rate increases, heartbeat irregularities and overall increases in the heart’s workload. Combined use of two or more stimulant drugs can easily worsen these effects and severely or fatally overload your cardiovascular system.

Polydrug use that involves both stimulants and depressants can produce extremely unpredictable results. This unpredictability stems from the cross purposes of these two types of substances, which effectively result in simultaneous pressures to slow down and speed up the central nervous system. One known, potentially fatal interaction between stimulants and depressants occurs in polydrug use of alcohol and the stimulant MDMA (Ecstasy). Despite their differing effects on the central nervous system, both of these substances are capable of producing significant amounts of dehydration. In combination, they can alter normal kidney and liver function, produce seriously elevated body temperatures and trigger severe or fatal dehydration symptoms.


As noted previously, health professionals refer to fatal polydrug use as combined drug intoxication or multiple drug intoxication. In addition to polydrug use that involves alcohol and/or well-known drugs of abuse, fatal outcomes can occur in much more mundane or seemingly harmless circumstances. For instance, the mixture of the common nonprescription drug acetaminophen with certain other over-the-counter drugs can produce serious or fatal disruptions in liver, kidney, or pancreas function. It’s also important to note the fact that people who die from polydrug use commonly don’t have enough of any one drug in their system to produce a single-drug overdose; instead, it’s the combination of non-lethal drug doses that produces a fatal outcome.

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