Polysubstance use: diagnostic challenges, patterns of use and health

Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2014 Jul;27(4):269-75. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000069.


Purpose of review: Polysubstance use is common, particularly amongst some age groups and subcultures. It is also associated with elevated risk of psychiatric and physical health problems. We review the recent research findings, comment on changes to polysubstance diagnoses, report on contemporary clinical and epidemiological polysubstance trends, and examine the efficacy of preventive and treatment approaches.

Recent findings: Approaches to describing polysubstance use profiles are becoming more sophisticated. Models over the last 18 months that employ latent class analysis typically report a no use or limited-range cluster (alcohol, tobacco and marijuana), a moderate-range cluster (limited range and amphetamine derivatives), and an extended-range cluster (moderate range, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs and other illicit drugs). Prevalence rates vary as a function of the population surveyed. Wide-ranging polysubstance users carry higher risk of comorbid psychopathology, health problems, and deficits in cognitive functioning.

Summary: Wide-ranging polysubstance use is more prevalent in subcultures such as 'ravers' (dance club attendees) and those already dependent on substances. Health risks are elevated in these groups. Research into the prevention and treatment of polysubstance use is underdeveloped. There may be benefit in targeting specific polysubstance use and risk profiles in prevention and clinical research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / adverse effects*
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / complications
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / epidemiology


  • Illicit Drugs