Women Experience Substance Abuse Differently

two women talking at a table

Addiction may be a chronic disease that affects both men and women, but that doesn’t mean that both genders experience it in exactly the same manner. There are distinct differences in substance abuse patterns for women.

Gender and Substance Abuse

Statistics show that gender is an important factor in substance abuse. Consider the following:

  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2011) found that men over the age of 18 have close to twice the rate of substance dependence as women. Among adolescents aged 12-17, though, the rate of substance dependence is the same for both males and females at 6.9%.
  • Men are more likely than women to say that they use alcohol and marijuana, but women are more likely to report that they are using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
  • Men are more likely to visit emergency rooms or die from an overdose than women.
  • Women are just as likely to become addicts as men and may be more susceptible to cravings.
  • Among seniors aged 65 and older, women who were admitted to treatment facilities were more three times more likely than men to state that abuse of pain medications such as oxycodone was their reason for seeking help.

Women and Stimulants

Women may be drawn to stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine because they are looking for something to give them more energy or help with weight control.

Animal studies have revealed that females will start taking cocaine sooner, and in larger amounts, than males. Female cocaine users appear to have some protection from the brain damage seen in male users, and researchers speculate there is some gender-related factor at play.

Methamphetamine does effectively control appetite, but it causes significant damage to a person’s skin and teeth. The trade-off for less exhaustion likely isn’t worthwhile, since female methamphetamine users also report high levels of depression.

Women and Heroin

There are also clear differences in how men and women use heroin. Women are usually younger than their male counterparts when they use this drug. They use smaller amounts than men and are less likely to use needles to inject it. Women who inject heroin state that social pressure and encouragement from a partner are factors in making their decision to start using that method.

According to one study, women who inject heroin are at higher risk than men for overdosing on the drug during their first few years of exposure to it by injection. It isn’t completely clear why this would be the case. Lack of experience may be part of it, and researchers speculate that women who inject heroin may also be abusing prescription drugs.

Women and Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug misuse is using a medication that was prescribed for someone else, using it in a way other than for which it was prescribed, or using it for the feelings the medication produces.

Women may be more sensitive to pain than men and more likely to complain of chronic pain to their doctor. As a result, they may receive more opioid prescriptions than men. They may also share opioid prescriptions with each other to cope with their pain instead of seeing a doctor. This pattern is also seen for anxiety and tension.

Opioid misuse has the potential to be fatal, since opioids act on the central nervous system and can suppress breathing. From 1999 to 2010, deaths from prescription pain medications jumped 400% for women, as opposed to 265% for men. Women between ages 45 and 54 are particularly at risk.

Women and Alcohol

Men and women’s bodies metabolize alcohol differently. When given comparable amounts of alcohol, women have higher blood ethanol concentrations (BAC) due to differences in their stomach tissue activity. This means a woman will become more intoxicated than a man on the same number of drinks.

Drinking alcohol over a long period of time is likely to be more dangerous for a woman than a man, even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for less time. Death rates for women with alcohol use disorder are up to 100% higher than for men, when taking into account the following:

  • Alcohol-related accidents
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Stroke
  • Suicide

Women who drink heavily are also at higher risk of becoming a victim of violence, including sexual assault, or having unprotected sex that leads to a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Gender Specific Treatment at English Mountain

Since women don’t experience the disease in the same manner as men, it follows that gender specific treatment is an appropriate approach to addiction recovery. English Mountain Recovery offers supportive residential inpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs. Our gender-specific, 12-step recovery programs were developed to meet the specific needs of both our male and female clients. Contact us today to learn more.

By Jodee Redmond

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