Polydrug use

Polydrug use is defined as the use of more than one drug or type of drug by an individual —consumed at the same time or sequentially.1 It can include the use of alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.

Many people have some type or pattern of polydrug use, for example:

  • people who smoke, drink alcohol and take over the counter medicines such as paracetamol
  • elderly people who may take a number of prescription drugs
  • young people who experiment with drugs2
  • people who use stimulants and then depressants to ‘come down’ afterwards.

There are a number of health risks associated with taking combinations of substances and these are dependent not only on the effects of the drug but also on the amount/s taken.3

Polydrug overdose

In Australia, many fatal overdoses involve the use of more than one type of drug. A recent report found that it is rare for an overdose death to be attributable to toxicity from a single drug; deaths involving multiple drugs are the norm rather than the exception. Polydrug deaths involving four or more substances have increased significantly in recent years.4

Common risks associated with polydrug use

Due to the combined effects, polydrug use can cause an increased chance of:

  • being extremely intoxicated (‘high’ or drunk)
  • increased severity of hangovers
  • engaging in risky behaviour (such as driving under the influence)
  • accidents and other injuries (like falls)
  • getting into fights and other violent behaviour
  • becoming dependent on one or more drugs
  • problems with family and friends
  • increased risk of mental health problems (such as depression or paranoia)
  • increased risk of medical problems (such as liver disease or heart disease)
  • increased risk of overdose.3
  1. World Health Organization. Lexicon of alcohol and drug terms 1994 [17/09/2019].
  2. National Research Centre on Alcohol and Other Drugs Workforce Development. Resource Kit for GP Trainers on Illicit Drug Issues 2005 [19/09/2019].
  3. Lee K, Freeburn B, Ella S, Miller W, Perry J, Conigrave K. Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work 2012 [17/09/2019].
  4. Penington Institute. Australia's Annual Overdose Report 2019.

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