Up until the early 90’s, women were excluded from drug abuse research and addiction rates among women were not accurately reported. But in the last couple of decades, finally we’ve seen that studies have been more inclusive of all genders.

There do appear to be differences between men and women when it comes to addiction, and in 2008, the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 11.5% of males aged 12 and older had a substance abuse or dependence problem compared to only 6.4% of females. While it would appear that men are more likely than women to become addicts, women do face tougher challenges when it comes to substance abuse. Their addictions tend to progress quicker into dependence, and they typically develop medical or social complications due to addiction at a faster rate than men. They have also reported finding it harder to quit using, and are more vulnerable to relapsing.

It’s very important that we as a community do not continue to ignore the differences between the sexes when it comes to addiction. For that reason, we will talk more about how addiction affects women in this article.

Why Women Abuse Drugs and Alcohol

When it comes to drug or alcohol abuse, women have different circumstances compared to men. This could be due to life pressures or social stigma that prompted them to abuse them in the first place. However there are plenty of reasons why women fall into addiction and here some of them:

  • To help reduce stress from social pressures to be the perfect woman (being a mother, housekeeper, career, etc.)
  • To gain confidence in social situations.
  • They feel they cannot meet expectations of their peers.
  • To avoid the feelings of loneliness or being disconnected from others.
  • To help deal with hunger. Instead of giving in to hunger by eating, many women use drugs to prevent themselves from wanting to eat too much or to simply avoid eating at all in an effort to keep weight off or lose pounds.
  • To deal with any past trauma (abused as a child, traumatic experiences, etc.)
  • To self-medicate in order to cope with any underlying mental health illness like anxiety and depression, PTSD, bipolar etc.

Most Common Substances Abused by Women

These are the substances that are commonly abused by women:


Women are prescribed painkillers at a higher rate than men, perhaps because of their higher propensity to suffer from chronic pain issues. Opioid painkillers can be extremely addictive and are among the most prescribed medications to women. Examples of these painkillers include Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, among others. Using these drugs over a period of time can cause the body and brain to become physically dependent on them. There is also a higher percentage of women who cite painkillers as their drug of choice, especially to those who are aged 65 and older.


Heroin is much cheaper and more accessible than prescription opioids, which is why the abuse of this substance is rapidly increasing these days. Because it is highly addictive, the pleasure centers of the brain are activated and increase the levels of dopamine. It takes effect quickly, but the intensity is short-lived. It dulls the pain and users can temporarily escape from reality, making it a drug of choice for a number of users. According to studies, 45% of people who are addicted to heroin also had history of painkiller addiction.

Anti-anxiety and prescription sleep aids

Many women today suffer from insomnia, depression and anxiety. Because of these conditions, they are often given prescribed medications for depression, anxiety and even medications to help them get more sleep. This also gives them higher chances of getting access to barbiturates, benzodiazepines and antidepressants as well as the possibility to abuse them. Withdrawing from these substances can cause extreme withdrawal symptoms since dependence can form in a short span of time.


Women who are addicted to stimulants are often caused by different reasons. This is because stimulants can be used to control weight loss, stay alert, increase focus or minimize fatigue. For example, drugs like cocaine, meth and other prescribed stimulants can speed up the function of the central nervous system. As a result, users are able to become more awake, sociable, suppress their appetite and maintain energy despite being under pressure or fatigued. However the National Institute for Drug Abuse warns users that stimulants can affect both genders differently. Women in particular are susceptible to addiction and are more sensitive to the side effects.


According to Harvard Health, about 7 to 12 percent of women abuse alcohol compared to 20 percent of men. However, as the gender gap is narrowing, so are the differences in drinking statistics between the two sexes as alcohol consumption by women has become more socially acceptable. Women are in greater danger of being negatively affected by alcohol because “women tend to weigh less than men, and — pound for pound — a woman’s body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a man’s. Because fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, a woman’s organs sustain greater exposure.” Women also absorb more alcohol into their bloodstream due to lower levels of enzymes that break down alcohol in the stomach and liver.

Fortunately, studies have shown that women are as likely as men to recover from alcohol addiction. However, they are less likely to enter into treatment, so providing helpful services like perinatal care, child care, and other family services could be of benefit.

Treatment for Women with Addiction

Prevention is the best approach to help women with addiction. However, in some cases, it may be too late for prevention methods, especially if the addiction developed quickly. The best way to get treatment is opting for addiction recovery with gender-specific treatment where women can recover from all types of addiction as well as those with co-occuring mental illness. It is also important to undergo detoxification and rehabilitation so they can fully recover.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of drug or alcohol addiction, seek medical help immediately. The faster the substance addiction is treated, the easier the transition will be so you can enjoy a long, healthy life. Get help today and good luck on your journey towards recovery!

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center® holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2009. Call 602-346-9142.