Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illegal drugs and misuse of prescription drugs. And resulting trips to the emergency room and overdose deaths are more common for men than women. For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women. However, women are just as likely as men to become addicted and be more susceptible to cravings and relapse, which are key phases of the addiction cycle.
Although men are more likely than women to report both a mental health and substance use disorder, women are more likely to suffer from certain mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder—or PTSD, and eating disorders. Some women report using substances to relieve stress or negative emotions. In addition, women are more vulnerable to developing substance use or other mental health disorders following divorce, loss of child custody, or the death of a partner or child.
It’s important to note that substance use disorders may progress differently for women than for men. Women often have a shorter history of abusing certain substances such as cocaine, opioids, marijuana, or alcohol. However, they typically enter substance use disorder treatment with more severe medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems. This is because women show a quicker progression from first using the substance to developing dependence.
Withdrawal may also be more intense for women. In some cases, women respond differently than men to certain treatments. For instance, nicotine replacement (patch or gum) does not work as well for women as for men.
It can be hard for any person with a substance use disorder to quit, but women may face unique social issues when it comes to substance abuse and treatment. Many women who are pregnant or have young children do not seek treatment or dropout of treatment early because they are unable to take care of their children. These women may also fear that authorities will remove their children from their care. The combined burdens of work, home care, child care, and other family responsibilities, plus attending treatment frequently, can be overwhelming for many women. Successful treatment may need to provide an increased level of support to address these needs.
Scientists who study substance use have discovered special issues related to hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause that can impact women’s struggles with drug use. In addition, women themselves describe unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and self-treating mental health problems.
- Women use substances differently than men, such as using smaller amounts of certain drugs for less time before they become addicted.
- Women can respond to substances differently. For example, they may have more drug cravings and may be more likely to relapse after treatment. This could be affected by a woman’s menstrual cycle.
- Sex hormones can make women more sensitive than men to the effects of some drugs.
- Women who use drugs may also experience more physical effects on their heart and blood vessels.
- Brain changes in women who use drugs can be different from those in men.
- Women may be more likely to go to the emergency room or die from overdose or other effects of certain substances.
- Women who are victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of substance use.
- Divorce, loss of child custody, or the death of a partner or child can trigger women’s substance use or other mental health disorders.
- Women who use certain substances may be more likely to have panic attacks, anxiety, or depression.
Substance use during pregnancy can be risky to the woman’s health and that of her children in both the short and long term. Use of some substances can increase the risk of miscarriage and can cause migraines, seizures, or high blood pressure in the mother, which may affect the baby. In addition, the risk of stillbirth is two to three times greater in women who smoke tobacco or marijuana, take prescription pain relievers, or use illegal drugs during pregnancy.
If you or someone you love has an addiction problem, please seek medical and behavioral therapy for treatment.