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What Is Cross-Addiction? Signs and Symptoms

June 17, 2021
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Addiction is a serious matter, especially in the United States, where over 20 million people suffer from substance abuse disorder.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, there’s a lot you need to know.

One of the most serious forms of addiction is known as cross-addiction. It hasn’t been too well-studied, but there’s still a lot to know. Let’s talk about it.

What Is Cross-Addiction?

Cross-addiction is the term used when one individual is experiencing an addiction to multiple substances at once. This is extremely, as it can be fatal in some cases, and requires treatment as soon as possible.

What does this look like? Well, it can look completely different, case by case.

However, one of the most common addictions to be involved in a cross-addiction is alcohol. In many cases, this will be the more visible one on the surface. Alcohol is extremely accessible to anybody over 21 and is widely used recreationally, making it easy for substance users to form a dependency without even realizing or acknowledging it.

In this scenario, you may notice a loved one is drinking excessively, but not know that they are also abusing their painkiller or anxiety medication, or that they are purchasing street drugs like heroin and using that as well.

This is just a hand-picked example. While it can be a combination of any substance, whether stimulants or depressants, legal or not, looking for the right warning signs is a good start.

Why Does It Occur?

Most often, it occurs when a pre-existing addiction, like alcohol use disorder, is met with the addition of prescription drugs. Your brain’s pleasure centers cannot distinguish between these substances and the “feel-good” hormone known as dopamine, which your body needs to feel pleasure.

While addiction as a whole is still being studied, it is also generally assumed that certain people are more predisposed to develop addictions at some point than others. This likely involves factors of genetics, childhood experiences, and current mental health statuses.

Dangers Of Cross-Addiction

While there are too many dangers involved in addiction to bother counting, there are some that pose the biggest concerns. The highest on the list is the physical dangers of mixing substances. This can lead to overdose even faster than addiction to one substance.

Regardless of the substances, mixing drugs and/or alcohol poses serious threats to health and can lead to death rather easily. Mixing substances should always be avoided, under any circumstance.

While the possibility of overdosing is scary enough, there are plenty of other dangers associated with cross-addiction, including:

  • Changes to interaction with family
  • Financial insecurity
  • Detox complications
  • Accidentally taking the wrong medication
  • Brain damage
  • Social effects
  • Loss of hygiene
  • Pregnancy complications

There are plenty of other associated health complications that come with addiction. However, while there is plenty more to worry about, it should be clear that cross-addiction is serious and needs to be treated.

Signs & Symptoms Of Cross-Addiction

Everybody is different, and everybody displays their addictions differently. If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, looking for cross-addiction signs and symptoms can help.

Who Is At Risk?

Among the most helpful signs to look for are those who may be most predisposed to addiction in general. This includes people suffering from mental health disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

If somebody receives prescription medication, especially for anxiety (often benzodiazepines) or pain management (often opioids), see if you can monitor how quickly they go through their prescriptions. Try to recall if they’ve mentioned anything about having trouble refilling them, or trying to increase their scripts or any other potentially relevant information.

Red Flags

Red flags are big warning signs from someone you suspect is struggling with addiction. Red flags will be out-of-character behaviors that could suggest substance abuse.

For example, if you notice somebody drinking too much, lying about their whereabouts, constantly running out of money, or missing work or family obligations, then that may be cause for concern.

Stealing from loved ones, dilated pupils, avoiding driving, and other suspicious behavior should be noted. If they are constantly saying they are sick, this could be withdrawal symptoms.

Keep in mind that none of these will necessarily spell out an addiction, especially a cross-addiction, on their own. If they add up, and you also notice some other suspicious behavior, it may be time to intervene.


Seeking treatment is absolutely critical. As mentioned before, one substance is taxing enough on the body, but the introduction of more than one on a regular basis can have catastrophic effects and needs to be stopped immediately.

Inpatient rehabilitation treatment is the most effective form of addiction treatment, and when there are multiple dependencies happening at once, you need all the help you can get.

If you need to intervene with a loved one, take the right steps to make sure the intervention works. Do not berate or belittle them. Let them know you are there to support them, that you care about their future, and that you want to see them get better. You only get one shot at this, so take it seriously.

Don’t Suffer In Silence

Cross-addiction is no joke. If you or a loved one is suffering, the time to get treatment is now. The longer you wait, the more time you spend at risk, and the harder it will be to seek treatment.

Keep yourself informed about addictions and what they lead to without treatment. Find out how opiates can turn from prescriptions into street heroin in a matter of no time.




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Warren Boyd
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