There’s no question that drug addiction is equally devastating for both men and women. Yet nationwide studies have shown that males and females tend to be drawn to different drugs, and that the disease of addiction affects them differently. Recent research also indicates that gender can affect the individual’s response to drugs and his or her likelihood of becoming addicted. In studying drug abuse between the genders, it’s important to look closely at effective recovery therapies as well as patterns and consequences of substance abuse.

Is drug abuse more common in men or women?

The study of how gender influences drug addiction is relatively new. As Tammy L. Anderson, PhD, points out in Drug Use and Gender, male drug abuse set the standard for addiction studies until the 1980s. At that time, researchers began to investigate the specific ways that drug abuse affected females. Comparative studies from the 1980s and 1990s showed that drug addiction was more common among men than among women. In addition:

  • Males start using drugs at an earlier age.
  • Males abuse drugs more often and in larger amounts.
  • Males are more likely to abuse alcohol and tobacco.
  • Males are more likely to engage in binge drinking (the consumption of five or more drinks in a short time period).

In the 21st century, nationwide surveys continue to show that males abuse drugs at higher rates than females. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicated that close to 12 percent of American males age 12 and older were currently using illegal drugs, compared with just over 7.3 percent of females in the same age group. Multi-drug use was also more common in males than in females.

According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future Survey, which tracks drug use among American adolescents and young adults, illicit drug abuse is more common among males in high school and college. Among high school seniors, for instance, 9 percent of males reported that they use marijuana daily, while less than 4 percent of females use the drug every day. However, in younger teens (8th to 10th grade), girls tend to abuse drugs at the same rate as boys.

What accounts for the difference in male and female drug use? Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that more males use drugs at an earlier age not because they are more susceptible to substance abuse, but because they have more opportunities. Teenage males are more likely to be exposed to drugs through their peer group than teenage girls, who are often introduced to drugs by boys. A study sponsored by NIDA shows that after being initiated into drug use, males and females are equally likely to continue using.

Drug Abuse Vs. Addiction

Although males abuse drugs at an earlier age and more frequently than females, females tend to become addicted more quickly once they are introduced to drugs — a phenomenon known as “telescoping.” Women tend to relapse at higher rates than men after going through rehab, and they tend to suffer from more serious consequences to their health, occupational status, relationships, and finances.

Why do women respond differently to the effects of drugs? The specific reason for these differences is still being investigated. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology proposes that differences in brain chemistry and the influence of female sex hormones like estrogen may account for women’s susceptibility to certain drugs, including stimulants like meth and cocaine.

The incidence of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders is higher in women than in men, which may predispose females to become addicted to certain substances. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, for example, states that depression is twice as common in females as in males. Prescription painkillers, tranquilizers, and alcohol are common drugs of abuse among people who suffer from mood disorders and anxiety. The frequency of psychiatric conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and bulimia — all of which are associated with an increased risk of substance abuse — among women may be partly responsible for their vulnerability to chemical dependence and addiction.

Which drugs are most commonly abuse?

Just as males and females differ in their drug use patterns, they differ in their favored drugs of abuse. Harvard Medical School reports the following results on male and female drug use:

  • Males are up to three times more likely to smoke marijuana every day than females. However, with the growing movement to legitimize medical marijuana, the use of cannabis products may increase among females.
  • More women than men receive emergency treatment for opioid addiction and abuse. Females receive more prescriptions for prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, possibly because they are more likely to experience physical conditions causing chronic pain, such as endometriosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Males and females are equally likely to abuse stimulants. The use of cocaine, meth, and other stimulants occurs at similar rates in men and women. However, women tend to become addicted more quickly and to suffer more damage to their health. Women also have higher rates of relapse after finishing treatment.

The nonmedical use of prescription drugs — including painkillers, tranquilizers, and sedatives — is a growing problem in the United States. Although statistics show that more men abuse prescription drugs than women, the gap between the genders is narrowing. Among younger females ages 12 to 17, prescription drug abuse is more prevalent than in males, according to Gender Medicine. The same journal reports that a higher percentage of young adult females are addicted to cocaine or to prescription medications — even though males in that age group abuse those drugs more frequently and take them in larger amounts.

Disturbingly, recent statistics show that overdose deaths among women are increasing, especially among females who abuse prescription opioids. CDC Vital Signs states that opioid overdose deaths have increased by 400 percent among women since 1999. By comparison, fatal opioid overdoses have increased among men by approximately 265 percent in that time. The CDC estimates that up to 18 women die in the United States every day from an overdose of opioid drugs, many of which were obtained through a prescription.

What are the best approaches to treatment?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women are less likely to receive adequate treatment for substance abuse than men. When they do get help, women are less likely than men to receive care at a specialized drug treatment facility. Instead, they are often treated by primary care providers or through mental health programs. In addition, women face more obstacles to treatment, including lower incomes, the possibility of pregnancy, and the need for childcare. In addition, women may be more prone to hiding their substance abuse out of fear of social stigma, loss of child custody, or repercussions from a partner or spouse.

Nationwide studies confirm that even though addiction develops more commonly in women, more men enter rehab at specialized treatment facilities. The 2014 TEDS Report includes the following statistics:

  • Approximately 33 percent of admissions to rehab facilities in 2011 were women, while nearly 67 percent were male.
  • For the majority of female admissions, the primary drug of abuse was alcohol.
  • More men than women (close to 81 percent versus nearly 61 percent) were treated for marijuana addiction as their primary drug of abuse.
  • Among older adults (age 65 and above) who were admitted to treatment facilities, three times more women than men reported prescription pain relievers as their primary drug of abuse.

Studies of drug addiction treatment show that drug abuse patterns vary not only by gender, but also by age. For instance, teenage girls and older women have higher rates of prescription drug abuse than males; however, the numbers are more equal in young and middle-aged adults.

Why does gender matter?

In the past, drug addiction was studied in both males and females from a male perspective. By the same token, drug abuse prevention programs and rehab facilities were designed with an emphasis on the needs of males. Today, outreach campaigns, preventive education, and drug addiction treatment can be tailored to address the needs of both men and women.

For many patients in drug addiction recovery, gender-specific treatment programs provide a respite from the social stressors of everyday life. Male and female patients can focus exclusively on their recovery, without the distraction of interacting with the opposite sex. In group therapy sessions, both men and women may feel more comfortable communicating about sensitive issues like sexuality, social prejudice, and domestic abuse with members of their own sex.

When it comes to treating drug addiction, both men and women can benefit from a comprehensive program that encompasses the full continuum of care, from detox to residential treatment, partial hospitalizationoutpatient services, and transitional living. Effective treatment therapies on this continuum of recovery services include:

  • Medically managed drug and alcohol detox
  • Anti-addiction medication
  • Group therapy with peers
  • Family or marriage counseling
  • Nutritional counseling and dietary support
  • Fitness training
  • Experiential and expressive therapies
  • Holistic modalities
  • Aftercare programs for alumni

Having the support of a highly trained, multidisciplinary staff can help individuals of both genders recover from the disease of addiction and regain hope for the future.

At The Recovery Village, we offer individually tailored programs to meet the specific needs of men and women. We acknowledge gender differences in our clients by providing personalized treatment plans that reflect their life situations.

For more information on our progressive approach to drug addiction treatment, call our intake counselors today.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.