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Updated on November 9, 2022

Women and Drug Addiction

Addiction Differences Between Men and Women

Women suffer from drug addiction in great numbers. Over 8.4 million women (or 6.6% of the female population) have misused prescription drugs in the past year.1

Women and men may face unique barriers and specific issues surrounding addiction. These differences are due to biological (sex) and cultural (gender) factors.

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Biological Factors That Affect Drug Addiction

Three biological factors that affect men and women as related to drug addiction include:

1. Metabolism

Women metabolize alcohol and drugs differently than men. This is because women have fewer stomach enzymes and more fatty tissue, which can cause a substance to be more highly concentrated. 

2. Cravings 

Science has shown that women may be more likely to crave a drug after less time using it. Additionally, they may be more likely to relapse once they’ve quit.1 

Women experience more cravings than men due to higher levels of the hormone estrogen.

3. Chronic Pain

70% of people diagnosed with chronic pain issues are women. 

Additionally, studies have shown that women are more likely to feel chronic pain. Women may also feel pain for more extended periods, in more areas, and at more intense levels than men.2

This chronic pain can make them more likely to be prescribed opiates and pain relievers by doctors.3

Cultural Factors That Affect Drug Addiction 

Five cultural factors that affect men and women as related to drug addiction include:

1. Stigma

Women experience higher levels of stigma related to substance abuse and treatment.4 That’s because society pressures women to be caregivers and heads of the family unit. 

These feelings can make women feel isolated and ashamed and, in turn, increase addiction.

2. Trauma

It’s estimated that 55% to 99% of women who are being treated for addiction have experienced something traumatic.5*

For one, sexual abuse trauma is much higher in women than men. 81% of women will experience sexual trauma at some level in their life compared to 43% of men.6

Additionally, women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men after a traumatic event.7 Women with PTSD are more likely to develop substance use issues.

3. Gender Inequality

Lower wages and the increased likelihood of poverty makes women more susceptible to substance use. In addition, more limited financial resources may make it harder for women to seek treatment.12 

4. Motherhood

Of all women who enter treatment for drug use, over 70% have children. Children may make it harder for women to attend meetings or get help.

Moreover, mothers who are the sole or primary caretakers may be scared to get help for fear of social services.

5. Co-Occurring Disorders

Women are almost twice as likely to experience depression than men.8 Also, anxiety and eating disorders (EDs) are more common in women. 

Studies show that women with mental health disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression, may use drugs to self-medicate.9

Do Women Have Higher Rates of Substance Abuse?

Substance use disorders are prevalent in both men and women. Historically, men are more likely to develop a substance use problem. However, over the last decade, the rate of substance use in women was shown to be greater than that of men.10

Substance Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

The use of tobacco, alcohol, and prescription or illicit drugs can have severe consequences. For example, using any of these substances can make you two to three times more likely to have a stillbirth. 

If an infant survives after the mother’s drug use, the baby can show withdrawal symptoms at birth. Symptoms of drug withdrawal in a newborn can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Blotchy skin tone
  • High-pitched crying
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Abnormal sucking reflex
  • Irritability

If a breastfeeding mother takes drugs, they will pass through their breast milk and into their child. Therefore, you should never take any drugs while breastfeeding. 

If you’ve taken drugs, don’t breastfeed your child for at least 24 hours.11 

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Signs of Drug Addiction

Drug and substance use is different for everyone, including men and women. Drug use differs between men and women based on factors related to sex and gender.

Some common signs of drug addiction include:

  • Continuing to take a drug, even after it’s no longer needed
  • Developing a tolerance to the substance, resulting in needing more to feel the same effects
  • Withdrawal symptoms (depression, shakes, stomach issues, etc.) when the drug wears off 
  • Inability to stop taking the drug even if you want to
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about the drug and how you’ll get it next
  • Not being able to stop yourself from taking more of the drug once you’ve started
  • Loss of interest in things you used to find enjoyable
  • Trouble with daily tasks
  • Hiding your drug use from others
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in your body, such as bloodshot eyes, tremors, or bloody noses

Treatment Options

Rehab

Two main types of rehab are used for drug and substance use disorders:

1. Outpatient Treatment 

This type of rehab is often considered a lower-intensity and less restrictive treatment. Here, people can attend counseling and receive medication but continue to sleep at home. This treatment can be helpful for women who have children to care for.

People in outpatient treatment usually spend about 10 hours weekly at outpatient treatment centers. Lengths of time in treatment vary. But often, people spend between 3 months to a year in treatment.

Most outpatient treatment centers will include individual or group counseling and substance abuse education.

2. Inpatient Treatment

People live in the facility full-time at an inpatient or residential treatment facility. These treatment centers are usually of higher intensity than other outpatient treatment centers. 

People attending inpatient treatment centers have access to 24/7 medical and emotional support. 

Residential and outpatient treatment can help manage withdrawal and detoxification using medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Counseling

Counseling can be a useful way to help you recover from drug addiction. You can attend it on an individual or group basis. Counseling can also help you understand your addiction, connect with other users, and aid in recovery. 

Group therapy can be beneficial when recovering from drug addiction. Programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcohol Anonymous (AA) can allow you to hear others’ stories and relate personally to help you feel less alone.

NA and AA use a 12-step model, where people work together in a group toward a full recovery.  

Medications

Some medications can help ease the pain of withdrawal symptoms during recovery. In addition, many drugs are used to help with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues. 

Speak with your doctor to see if any medications may help you while on your road to recovery.

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Recovery Outlook

Unfortunately, women are more likely to relapse than men.12 This can be due to more intense cravings, higher pleasurable responses to drugs than men, and other factors. 

Additionally, women remain underrepresented in addiction treatment. This may be due to stigmas, shame, or fear of legal action against them. 

Women who have drug addictions or are in recovery need support. Finding the right treatment plans can help drug-addicted women get sober. Moreover, group therapy or counseling may help women not to feel alone in their journey to recovery.

Summary

  • Women are more likely than men to develop a drug addiction or dependence
  • Factors that contribute to higher rates of substance use in women include sexual abuse, trauma, PTSD, sociological and economic factors, and more
  • Women should never take drugs while pregnant or breastfeeding
  • There are many treatment options that women can try to recover from drug addiction
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Resources

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  1. Substance Use in Women DrugFacts.” NIDA, 2020.
  2. Women and pain: Disparities in experience and treatment.” Harvard Health Blog, 2017.
  3. Opioid Addiction Disease Facts and Figures.” American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2016.
  4. Kulesza M, et al. “Substance Use Related Stigma: What We Know and the Way Forward.” J Addict Behav Ther Rehabil, 2013.
  5. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women.” SAMHSA, 2013.
  6. The facts behind the #metoo movement: A national study on sexual harassment and assault.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 2018.
  7. Ressler KJ, Mercer KB, Bradley B, Jovanovic T, Mahan A, Kerley K, Norrholm SD, Kilaru V, Smith AK, et al. “Post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with PACAP and the PAC1 receptor.” Nature, 2011.
  8. Albert PR. “Why is depression more prevalent in women?” J Psychiatry Neurosci, 2015.
  9. Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institute of Public Health, 2021.
  10. Cornish JL, et al. “Sex Differences in Substance Use Disorders: A Neurobiological Perspective. Front Glob Women's Health.” National Library of Medicine, 2021.
  11. Alcohol and drug use while breastfeeding.“ Department of Health WA.
  12. ​​The Straight Facts on Women in Poverty.” American Progress, 2008.

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