Women and Alcohol: The Effects of Drug Addiction on Females

Last Updated: January 5, 2022

Authored by Olivier George, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The way substances act on the body and mind differs between the sexes. Besides pharmaceuticals, this also applies to the use of alcohol and illicit drugs and the development of addiction.

Women drug addiction develops much faster than in men, even though females are more likely to drink less alcohol or use smaller amounts of drugs when they begin abusing any substance. They also experience a socio-cultural impact that differs from that of men. For instance, the health and social ramifications of substance abuse typically catch up to females faster. Behavioral disorders are also more likely to accompany addiction.

This article will discuss how women and alcohol or drug abuse differ from the same in men.

Men vs. Women Alcohol and Drug Abuse

The way that substances act in the body differs between sexes. It is the case with alcohol, medications, and illicit drugs.

The Reason for This Is Simply Down to the Differences in Two Areas:

  • Sex – these are the biological differences between males and females that are physically appreciable.
  • Gender – these are the cultural, social, and psychological differences between males and females.

Females generally have a higher fat composition and a lower kidney clearance rate. In addition, hormonal and enzymatic differences between sexes have an impact. These factors affect how substances are metabolized and, in the case of psychoactive substances, can affect how addiction and substance use disorders develop.

Adult women and alcohol use disorder show a prevalence of 4.1% compared to 7.8% in men. Still, this difference does not extend into the adolescent age group (12 to 17 years old), where 9.9% of females admitted to current alcohol use compared to 9.6% for males.

Information from another study noted that in those older than 65 years old, prescription drug abuse was almost three times as high as that for men in the same age bracket. Between the ages of 18 and 44, admissions for treatment of substance use disorders were predominantly women.

Nearly 20 million women also stated that they had used illicit drugs (including marijuana) within the last year. That population makes up just above 15%.

They very commonly suffer from mental health disorders alongside their substance abuse problems as they are related. For example, one study provided information that as many as 57% of drug addiction women met the criteria to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD and substance abuse). Generally, these symptoms were seen more in female alcoholics than males.

Men Women
Men start to misuse prescription narcotics for the sheer experimentation; men look for a different “high” when they begin abusing prescription drugs. They begin self-medicating (especially with antidepressants and sedatives) by taking increased dosages or attempting to treat a separate disease, like trying to control weight or fight off insomnia.
Due to lower prevalence of behavioral health conditions like depression and anxiety, men are less likely to be prescribed habit-forming medication. Women and addiction forming prescription medication tend to be dispensed more. This is because they experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Addiction for men occurs slower, despite higher starting doses of drugs. Due to the telescoping effect, they are likely to move from substance use to addiction faster.
Males are less likely to relapse. They are more likely to relapse.
Males more frequently set their dosage for abuse at a lower level. Their dosage of abuse tends to be higher.
Men are less likely to visit the emergency room for drug-related treatment. Due to the above, females are more likely to experience side effects of drug abuse, such as overdose and organ damage.
Alcohol withdrawal is more intense in males. Women and addiction symptoms, particularly with alcohol, are more subdued.

Women and Alcohol

Men are more likely to be alcoholics than women, with 7% being diagnosed this year as opposed to 4% of females. They consume more alcohol, with the average male drinking about three times as much alcohol each year.

Despite this, there is a closer association between women and alcohol-related injuries and health conditions, such as organ and brain damage. In addition, equal percentages seek treatment each year among males and females diagnosed with alcohol use disorder.

Binge Drinking

The gender gap that exists with alcohol drinking has been shrinking consistently. In a 16-year period, information from a study found a 14% increase in the number of females who binge drink and a mere 0.5% increase for men.

Woman addict holding a glass of red wine.

Among adult females, 13% reported binge drinking an average of four times each month, with five drinks consumed per session. Among high school students, binge drinking was found to be more prevalent in female students, at 15% compared to 13% in males. This is despite the national policy, which acts to prevent underage drinking.

COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has induced a significant increase in women and alcohol consumption prevalence. This is an increase seen following highly stressful events in most cases, as adverse changes to mood, sleep, and other variables were noticed.

A study demonstrated a 41% increase in heavy drinking days in females during the pandemic compared to before it.

Women Drug Addiction Effects

A substance use disorder is bound to affect a woman’s life if it is left untreated and she refuses to attend drug rehab for women. These effects target different aspects of wellbeing, including psychological, physical, and social wellbeing.

Psychological Effects

  • Women become dependent faster than men, something that is known as “telescoping.”
  • Drug addiction women report self-medicating to overcome increased stress levels, fight fatigue or treat a mental health disorder.
  • They are more likely to visit emergency rooms because of an opioid or prescription drug overdose.
  • Those who experience domestic violence are more likely to become substance abusers.
  • They are also more likely to develop mental health conditions like depression due to alcohol consumption.

Physical Effects

  • Liver disease. Females are at a greater risk of developing a liver disease related to alcohol consumption than males.
  • Cardiac disease. There is an increased risk of developing a cardiac disease.
  • Long-term alcohol consumption can affect ovulation and menstrual cycles and induce early menopause.
  • Dehydration. Due to alcohol functioning as a diuretic, it promotes urination, which can cause dehydration, particularly in people who binge drink.
  • Cancer. Alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of developing several forms of cancer, including breast, liver, and colorectal cancer.

Social Effects

  • Heavy drinking has been shown to increase the risk of females being predisposed to sexual assault. The disinhibition and mental effect of binge drinking can put them in situations where perpetrators can easily assault them.
  • The diminishing of accurate muscle coordination after binge drinking makes car crashes and accidents more likely to happen.
  • Women and alcohol abuse can also cause job loss when extreme, which can cause a significant effect on the financial aspect of life too.
  • Women addiction can also cause strain on personal and romantic relationships.

Effects of Different Substances on Women

In a strictly physical sense, drug abuse has a more definable and measurable impact on a woman’s body than a man’s. Taking a look at specific substances and their physical effects and risks on the two sexes can be one way to substantiate this claim.

Alcohol

Alcohol is the number one abused substance in the United States. While men use alcohol more often than women, the gap between male and female alcohol abuse has been slowly closing over the years since it has become more socially acceptable for females to drink alcohol, especially in public. However, this rise in female drinkers has also given rise to cases of women and addiction to alcohol. It can be attributed to alcohol’s different effect on females than men. Since they statistically weigh less than men, an equal amount of alcohol will prove to have a stronger effect on a woman.

Nicotine

There are more reported male smokers – 15.3% of the national population in the USA – than female smokers (12.7%), but again, the latter have greater health risks associated with tobacco smoking. They face higher risks of developing lung cancer and are more at risk of heart attack and heart disease if they smoke. Statistically, while trying to quit, they experience more relapses than men. It can be attributed to the fluctuation of hormones during a woman’s menstrual cycle. And some studies have shown that nicotine replacement therapies may work more for men than for women. Females respond more to the ritual of smoking (lighting up, opening a pack, or social drinking) than men do to nicotine, which is easier to treat. Prescription drugs to help quit smoking have proven to work equally well for both sexes.

Prescription Drugs

In the past few years, large numbers of both sexes have started to abuse prescription drugs more and more. Evidence has shown that men become addicted to prescription drugs more through experimentation and a desire to get “high.” Women drug addiction develops by over-medicating when faced with numerous other medical and social concerns.

Woman taking a pill with a glass of water.

Females are also prescribed more habit-forming medications because they statistically suffer from more chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia or mental disorders, like depression.

Cannabis

Estrogen levels make them more susceptible to the “pleasing” effects of THC found in cannabinoids. The sensitivity to THC in marijuana makes women more at risk of developing an addiction and, by extension, makes them more predisposed to develop addictions to other substances.

Opioids (Heroin)

In general, ladies use smaller amounts of heroin and use it for shorter periods than men; they also do not inject heroin as often as men. However, they are more likely to be affected by their sexual partner’s opioid abuse behavior than men. Research has shown that sexual partners exert a disproportionate influence over their female partners. Almost half of all female intravenous drug users report starting injecting drugs because their partner first injected them. Women also visit emergency rooms more often for opioid women addiction than men.

Moreover, women using drugs while pregnant predispose themselves and their baby to serious health problems.

Stimulants (Cocaine and Meth)

Both sexes are just as likely to abuse stimulant drugs like methamphetamines and cocaine. However, onset with these drugs is earlier in females, and they are more likely to relapse due to stronger cravings due to hormonal differences.

Higher estrogen levels have also been linked to the quicker onset of women drug addiction in those who abuse stimulants.

Treatment for Women Addiction

Advances have been made in how both sexes are treated for substance abuse. And the amount of both groups currently receiving some form of substance abuse treatment has been more or less equal for the last decade.

However, factors specific to females sometimes hamper their efforts to get into treatment. For example, women might lack both childcare and financial resources. They might also have to undergo treatments that have yet to be proven effective.

Woman talking to a counselor about addiction.

Once they have entered treatment, they show about the same success rates as men. Only once females have gone through treatment, they present a higher risk of relapsing due to a higher than average rate of drug cravings.

Many early treatments for addiction were inadvertently targeted toward men because scientists only considered studying men to discover ways of treating drug abuse. Females were left out of earlier studies, so gender-specific treatment was yet to be made available or studied.

Trauma As a Cause of Substance Abuse

The statistics on past experiences with trauma show a definitive skewing towards women than to men. For those already addicted to a substance, drug rehab for women is an option.

Trauma – an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing

They Can Experience “Trauma” in a Variety of Ways, Although Some of the More Common Forms Include:

  • Sexual Assault. 15% to 25% of females from various age groups report having a sustained history of sexual assault in their lifetimes 30% to 50% of survivors of sexual assault develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
  • Domestic/Partner Violence. 37.3% of American women experienced some form of violence originating from their intimate partner during their lifetimes, compared to 30.9% for men. 1.3 million females experience some form of partner abuse annually compared to 835,000 men
  • Childhood Abuse. 51.9% of women and 66.4% of men report being abused by a primary caretaker as a child. Females in the United States report being raped at earlier and earlier ages, with over half (54%) of all attempted and completed sexual assaults occurring before the age of eighteen.

Bullying in schools or workplace bullying can also contribute to trauma that will eventually lead to substance abuse. Of course, traumatic experiences affect everyone differently, regardless of age, race, or gender. There is substantial information that shows a direct correlation between a traumatic event, the development of PTSD, and ultimately the creation of a substance abuse problem, in that order.

Man covering woman's mouth.

Females, unfortunately, experience increased incidences of both early childhood sexual assault as well as incidences of sexual assault in adulthood, making women and addiction twice as likely to be an occurrence.

A singular case of early childhood sexual abuse paints a revelatory picture of how exactly trauma, PTSD, and substance abuse in females are connected. One study surveyed a woman named Margaret, who had experienced sexual abuse early and often in her life, from a mix of familiar and unknown perpetrators.

Taking the case of Margaret as an example, researchers found that during a traumatic event (like childhood sexual assault):

  • The body begins to release endorphins, which help temporarily alleviate symptoms like stress and fear associated with the trauma.
  • However, these endorphin levels drop immediately following the traumatic event, which then brings on symptoms of withdrawal in the brain, which conversely leads to alcohol or drug abuse to compensate for that sudden endorphin deficiency.

While the case of Margaret is only one among many, her example is illustrative of how trauma, assault, and substance abuse play off of each other in harmful and destructive ways for, most notably, women.

By her own admission, Margaret relayed increased alcohol consumption as a way to help with the painful memories of her assault. She also consumed a great deal of alcohol to avoid any instances where she might start to relive her experience (when she went to sleep, for example) or whenever an everyday occurrence triggered a flashback in her mind.

Not Safe for Women

Having previously drawn the lines from drug abuse to trauma and then back again, it might now be fitting to examine a particular sector of society where the two factors collide in a quiet yet devastating fashion.

For many young people, college represents a whole new way of living. Boundaries are tested – sometimes, broken – young people begin experimenting and exploring different ways of behaving.

For some, this includes trying drugs and alcohol. And for others, primarily young women, the intersection of where alcohol and sexual assault meet, namely, a college campus, can prove to be life-changing.

In 2016, a Study by the Justice Department Discovered That:

  • Almost 21% of females across a sample of nine schools reported having experienced a sexual assault since their first year in university.
  • Over 6.4% across the same nine schools reported being victims of domestic violence.

Information From Another Study From 2007 Found That:

  • Nearly 6 million college-attending women have been raped.
  • In the year of reporting, almost 300,000 were raped.
  • Broken down by type of rape, almost 200,000 college students were forcibly raped, and 100,000 were incapacitated rape (substance-induced).
  • Almost half of all campus sexual assaults involved either the consensual or non-consensual ingestion of alcohol by either the victim or the perpetrator.

This last statistic is helpful since it shows a direct line between drinking in college and its relation to campus sexual assault. The presence of alcohol in almost half of all cases of campus sexual assault warrants a deeper understanding of how these two variables relate to each other.

The national policy might be required to reduce the effect of excessive alcohol usage. National policy such as increased alcohol tax and limits on hours of sale may potentially have an impact.

Drug Rehab for Women: The Sooner, The Better

The differences in women drug addiction and male addiction may not seem significant at first glance, but the way the effects vary runs deep. There is an increase in female participation related to alcohol intake too.

The psychological, social, and physical effects that drugs cause make it entirely worth quitting as soon as possible. It’s always possible to step back on the path of sobriety by registering in drug rehab for women, even when you’ve been off it for a while. Different therapies, like CBT, EMDR, animal-assisted therapy, and even yoga for addiction are available in drug rehabs. Therefore it’s possible to find a rehabilitation center nearby that will suit each person’s needs. There will always be help available.

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Published on: January 5th, 2022

Updated on: January 5th, 2022

About Author

Olivier George, Ph.D.

Olivier George is a medical writer and head manager of the rehab center in California. He spends a lot of time in collecting and analyzing the traditional approaches for substance abuse treatment and assessing their efficiency.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.