Every day, countless men and women in the United States use multiple substances. They might take several medications prescribed by their doctor. They might use an OTC drug and consume alcohol later in the day. They might struggle with polysubstance use (an addiction to multiple substances at once). Whatever the reason, there are millions of Americans combining drugs — and if those combinations are unsafe, a recipe for disaster awaits.
What risks come along with combining substances? What are some of the most dangerous drug interactions? How can drug or alcohol addiction treatment help you deal with polysubstance use? Let’s answer these important questions today.
The Dangers of Mixing Drugs
Drugs are designed to produce changes in our bodies. Whether using a stimulant, depressant, opioid, or other drugs, you can expect to feel some kind of reaction (in some cases, a “high”). This presents a problem when someone combines substances. Both substances make the body react, and the combined reactions can have dangerous results.
In some cases, the two drugs may cause the same effect (like alcohol and opioids, which both depress the nervous system). This can cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to drop to critical levels, putting them at an increased risk of overdose.
In other cases, two drugs can have an adverse reaction to one another that ultimately harms the person using them. For example, suppose a person using calcium channel blockers to treat hypertension ALSO uses a common antibiotic called clarithromycin. In that case, they are much more likely to be hospitalized with a severe kidney injury.
These potentially deadly drug interactions are why medical professionals ask their patients which medications they currently take before prescribing anything new. The doctor wants to be certain they don’t accidentally encourage the patient to take a medicine combination to avoid.
The Most Commonly Misused Drug
It’s clear that most drugs — even those that are beneficial and life-saving on their own — can become dangerous if you combine them with the wrong substances. But you might be wondering, “what is the most commonly misused drug?” According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the answer is clear: alcohol.
About 16 million Americans over the age of 12 misused alcohol in 20191. Unfortunately, alcohol can be incredibly dangerous in combination with many other substances, from prescription medications to illegal drugs.
If you or someone you know is combining alcohol with other drugs, getting help as soon as possible is vital. Better Addiction Care can help you find a rehab facility (including free or state-funded rehabs) to help you or your loved one overcome their alcohol addiction and improve their lives.
Dangerous Drug Interactions
We’ve discussed some of the possible side effects of combining drugs, as well as the drug (alcohol) that’s most likely to be misused. But now, let’s answer another question: “how common are dangerous drug interactions?”
According to the research, it is much more common than we might think. Surveys show that among people who report misusing prescription drugs, about 69% claim to use prescription drugs in combination with substances like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and even MDMA or psychedelics2.
Additionally, data from hospitals across the country indicate that drug interactions are rising. Research from 2016 found that the risk of major “drug-drug interactions” among American seniors rose from 8.4% to over 15% in just five years, and it appears that the risk is still increasing across all age groups³.
Deadly Drug Combinations to Avoid
What can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the harmful effects of drug interactions? Obviously, the best thing to do is avoid illicit substances and listen to your doctor’s advice regarding prescription drug use.
However, it’s also important to learn about the potential risks of combining certain substances. Knowledge is the key to avoiding dangerous drug interactions, even if someone is still struggling with a substance use disorder.
With that in mind, let’s discuss some of the deadly drug combinations you need to avoid. Here are the drug combinations that pose the most significant risk to your health and your life.
Alcohol and opioids: both these substances are central nervous system depressants, which means they affect brain activity and slow bodily processes like your heart rate. Used alone (and safely), this is rarely cause for alarm. But when someone uses alcohol and opioids together, the two substances can produce an extreme effect on your nervous system. This results in a much greater risk of:
- Dangerously low heart rate and blood pressure
- Respiratory arrest (stopped breathing)
- Loss of motor coordination
Researchers estimate that about 20% of all prescription opioid overdose deaths also involve alcohol use, which points to the significant risk that comes with combining these drugs4.
Heroin and cocaine: heroin and cocaine belong to opposite ends of the drug spectrum. Heroin is an opioid, which means it is a depressant, while cocaine is a stimulant. Some people may use these drugs together (called “speedballing”) because they think the adverse effects of each drug would “cancel each other out.” However, this is far from the truth.
Instead, individuals who use heroin and cocaine together are at extreme risk of overdose. One reason for this is because cocaine leaves the body faster than heroin does; a person who is speedballing may accidentally take more heroin than they are used to, and they won’t notice the effects until it is too late. Speedballing also increases a person’s risk of stroke, aneurysm, and heart attack5.
Alcohol and cocaine: Combining alcohol and cocaine means combining a stimulant and a depressant, just like the heroin and cocaine we’ve just mentioned. However, alcohol and cocaine have a wildly different effect when combined. Both of these drugs tend to make the user more aggressive. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and heightens aggression, while cocaine often increases feelings of paranoia. This can result in a person putting themselves in hazardous situations.
Additionally, alcohol and cocaine interact in our bodies to create a harmful chemical called cocaethylene. This chemical lives in your liver and significantly affects your cardiovascular system over time. This increases your risk of developing an irregular heartbeat and suffering from a heart attack, seizure, or coma6.
Opioids and benzodiazepines: About 30 million American adults use benzodiazepines each year, either as a prescription drug or recreationally7. On its own this class of drugs can be effective for treating conditions like anxiety or insomnia, but when they’re combined with other drugs they can be very dangerous.
According to research, over 30% of benzodiazepine overdoses involved opioid use8. These two drugs work together to severely depress your central nervous system, resulting in poor motor control, low breathing and heart rate, and ultimately death.
Fatal Drug Interaction List
The deadly drug interactions discussed above are just some of the risky combinations that can occur. Here are many other dangerous drug interactions you need to watch out for.
- Alcohol and:
- Prescription sleep aids
- OTC drugs (Claritin, Benadryl, etc.)
- Prescription stimulants (e.g., Adderall or Ritalin)
- Opioids and:
- Other opioids (e.g., oxycodone and fentanyl)
- Club drugs in combination with each other
- Marijuana and:
- Sedatives (Ambien, Lunesta)
- Anti-anxiety medications
As you can see, there are extreme risks that come along with using these substances in combination with one another. But of course, it’s also important to remember that all these substances can be harmful on their own. This is why Better Addiction Care is dedicated to helping people find the right rehab center for their specific needs. With the right care and support, it is possible to stand up to addiction and avoid these harmful substances for life.
Get Help for Drug Addiction Today with Better Addiction Care
The dangers of drug interactions are very real, and very scary. But there is hope and there is help available — all you have to do is call!
At Better Addiction Care, we want to be one of your first supporters in your journey toward recovery. We will work with you to find a rehab center that takes your insurance, suits your recovery goals, and can offer you all the help and support you need.
Our treatment advisors will help you connect with a facility where you can serve your court-ordered rehab. We’ll look for specialized programs (like rehab for veterans or faith-based programs), so you can get support from people who truly understand you. We’ll even help you find a sober living facility if you need extra help after treatment. Whichever program will help you take those first steps toward sobriety, we will be there to lend a hand.
Better Addiction Care is available 24/7, and calls are always free and confidential. If you want to learn more about rehab programs near you, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Call us today at (800) 429-7690.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020, September). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf
- Kelly, B. et al. (2015, May 1). “Combinations of Prescription Drug Misuse and Illicit Drugs among Young Adults.” Addictive Behaviors. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3980000/#__ffn_sectitle
- Qato, D. PharmD, MPH, PhD1, et al. (2016). “Changes in Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medication and Dietary Supplement Use Among Older Adults in the United States, 2005 vs 2011.” JAMA Internal Medicine. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2500064
- Esser, M. PhD, MPH, et al. (2019, August 1). “Binge Drinking and Prescription Opioid Misuse in the U.S., 2012–2014.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6642832/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.) Real Teens ask About Speedballs. NIDA. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-about-speedballs
- Andrews, P. (1997). “Cocaethylene toxicity.” Journal of Addictive Diseases. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9243342/
- Maust, D. et al. (2019, February 1). “Benzodiazepine Use and Misuse Among Adults in the United States.” Psychiatric Services. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30554562/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022, April 21). Benzodiazepines and Opioids. NIDA. Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/benzodiazepines-opioids
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