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Are Women More Susceptible to Addiction Than Men?

In today’s world, gender equality is one of the most talked about personal and political issues. However, when it comes to medical care, should men and women be treated equally? As it happens, the answer is no.

When it comes to substance abuse treatment, there are many studies that have proven that being female plays a role in susceptibility to addiction, treatment needs, and even the likelihood of relapse.

How many women suffer from addiction?

According to an article in Psychiatry Clinics of North America, men show higher rates of addiction than women. However, the gap between the sexes is closing. For every woman in the 1980s with a substance use disorder, there were five men. As of 2007, the ratio has narrowed to 3 to 1. 

If the numbers have remained steady, this means that out of the 18 million people who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, 4.5 million are female. However, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence states that the number of women with a substance use disorder is growing all the time.

Which substances do women use?

The breakdown of which substances women use are as follows:

  • 3.5 million females misuse prescription drugs.
  • 3.1 million females take illegal drugs.
  • Over 4 million females are considered “in need of treatment” for alcohol abuse.

Despite the gender ratio described above, girls aged 12-17 are more likely than their male peers to take prescription painkillers, to drink alcohol, and to use methamphetamines. Women of all ages are also more likely to visit doctors, and ask for, receive, and take prescription drugs. Worse yet, women move more quickly from first use to dependence than men do.

What are the specific risks for women?


Women’s bodies absorb alcohol differently than men’s due to average lower body weight, lower amounts of bodily water, and higher amounts of body fat. Fat keeps alcohol in the system while water dilutes it, so women experience the effects of alcohol use much quicker and more strongly than men do.

Women also have lower amounts of the enzymes that break down alcohol in the stomach and liver. As a result, more alcohol gets absorbed into their bloodstreams, and their blood alcohol content (BAC) is higher, further exacerbating the effects.

The move from alcohol use to addiction is quicker in women, due to a number of factors. These may include:

  • A higher likelihood of women to drink in times of stress, sadness, anger, and/or grief than men.
  • A higher instance in women of co-occurring mental illnesses that can make alcohol use and abuse seem attractive.
  • Women are found to suffer greater amounts of social stigma when seeking help for alcohol abuse when compared to men with similar issues. This may discourage women from seeking help quickly or at all.

Prescription Drugs

The most commonly misused prescription drugs by women are pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, and they’ve been prescribed and refilled by doctors for decades to combat problems like family-related stress. Women are also more likely to be a part of the welfare system and to have been victims of sexual and/or physical abuse than men, increasing their rate of prescription drug use and potential abuse.

Using drugs as a “band-aid solution” is quite common and because doctors have continued to use short-term medications for long-term problems, the risk of substance abuse in women has grown.


Men and women use stimulants at similar rates, but increased use of methamphetamines has been seen among pregnant women. Eight percent of pregnant women who entered into treatment facilities in 1994 were there for methamphetamine use. However, that number rose to 24% in 2006, which makes methamphetamines the most widely abused substance for pregnant women.

Women are more susceptible to the effects of these drugs because of their hormonal make-up. Changing levels of estrogen and progesterone (the sex hormones in a woman’s body) can make women feel increased effects of drugs like cocaine, incentivizing increased use and the risk of abuse. This has led women to use significantly more cocaine than men.


Women are more likely than men to keep unused narcotic prescriptions and to use them in combination with other drugs, such as sedatives, to increase the high.


While men use nicotine at higher rates than women, women have a harder time quitting. Some of it comes down to timing; the 10-14 days period between ovulation and menstruation has been found to be a harder time to quit than during the rest of a woman’s cycle.

Another factor is the fear of weight gain. In comparison to men, women have more fear about gaining weight as a result of smoking cessation and relapse at a 300% higher rate than men do.


On top of the adverse effects to the woman herself, the fetus inside her is at risk as well. Some 4% of women in treatment for substance use disorders are pregnant.

The most commonly used substances by pregnant women include:

  • Cocaine.
  • Crack.
  • Amphetamines / Methamphetamines.
  • Marijuana.
  • Alcohol.

According to the National Pregnancy and Health Survey, 19% of all pregnant women used alcohol during their pregnancy. Five percent used an illegal drug. 

Potential effects on the fetus include:

  • Post-birth withdrawal, otherwise known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
  • Low birth weight.
  • Birth defects.
  • Small head size.
  • Being born prematurely.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Delays in development.
  • Still-birth.

Many women do not seek treatment during pregnancy for fear of being prosecuted for abuse and having their child taken away.

Why are women more susceptible in general?

There are many reasons why females can be more prone to addiction (or continued addition) than males: some physical, some mental, and some emotional. They include:

  • The fluctuation of sex hormones during the menstrual cycle and the influence of that fluctuation on the effects of various substances.
  • A woman’s increased risk for domestic violence; if a woman has been abused, she is more likely to have a substance use disorder.
  • Withdrawal can be more intense for females than for males, or can be felt more intensely.
  • Women are less likely to seek treatment due to concerns about family stability.
  • A higher social stigma for admitting to a substance use disorder.
  • The vast majority of people with eating disorders are females. High rates of bulimia have been seen in women with substance use disorders.

What does treatment look like?

With this staggering number of factors in play, treating females with substance use disorders can seem impossible. However, once women enter treatment, research has shown that gender does not come into play when determining whether or not recovery will be successful.

All the same, there are some facts to consider:

  • Women who are able to keep custody of their children while in treatment were more likely to remain there and achieve recovery.
  • Women who enter into same-sex treatment facilities fare better than those who enter into mixed-gender environments.
  • Women with husbands, partners or boyfriends fared better in recovery when they also took part in behavioral couples therapy.

With all this in mind, treatment for females with substance abuse disorders must take a woman’s physicality, emotional upbringing, socialization, place in society, and potential role as a mother and/or partner into play while utilizing traditional recovery methods. Only then can the chances of relapse be minimized and the right to a healthy life ensured.

At The Recovery Village®, we offer individually tailored programs to meet the specific needs of women. Reach out to us today to see how we can provide a personalized treatment plan that reflects your life situation.

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“Alcoholism, Drug Dependence And Women.” National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Inc., 25 July 2015. 28 July 2016. <>.

Ashley, Olivia Silber and Brady, Thomas M. “Women in Substance Abuse Treatment: Results from the Alcohol and Drug Services Study (ADSS).” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2005. 28 July 2016. <>.

Greenfield, Shelly F., MD, MPH, et. al. “Substance Abuse in Women.” National Center for Biotechnical Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2010. 28 July 2016. <>.

“Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.” National Institute on Drug Abuse., September 2015. 28 July 2016. <>.

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August 9th 2016 | By: Liz Lazzara | Posted In: Substance Abuse