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Women and Substance Use

Historically, a disproportionate number of substance use disorder studies focused on men. Perhaps for reasons such as this, some people might assume that drug addiction is more of a problem in men than in women. But substance use disorders are prevalent in both women and men, and any gaps in the percentages may be closing. Further, while men in the United States continue to report higher rates of illicit (illegal) drug use (12.5% of men versus 7.9% of women according to 2015 national survey estimates), millions of women suffer from the negative consequences of substance abuse and addiction—which, in some instances, can be more damaging than those commonly experienced by men.1  

Some facts about women and substance abuse you may not know are:2,3

Woman with substance abuse problem sitting at table looking down

  • Every 3 minutes, a woman goes to the emergency room after abusing prescription painkillers.
  • Approximately 19.5 million adult women reported using illicit drugs in the past year.
  • According to the TEDS report in 2019 (TEDS is a census of all admissions to treatment facilities reported by state substance abuse agencies), women entered substance abuse treatment for the following primary substances of abuse:
    • Alcohol (14.8%)
    • Heroin (23.2%)
    • Other opioids (8.7%)
    • Marijuana (9.6%)
    • Cocaine (6.2%)
    • Methamphetamine/amphetamines (14.7%)
    • Other substances (10.1%)

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Misuse in Women

Substance use can present itself differently in women than it does in men. While women may on average have a shorter history of alcohol and drug misuse than men, they often enter addiction treatment with a more severe clinical profile—meaning they experience more significant substance-related physical, emotional, behavioral, and social problems than men. This is commonly the case even when men have misused the substance in question for longer and in greater amounts.2,4

Women are also more likely than men to suffer from co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. What’s more, many women begin using drugs in an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of these disorders.4,5

Issues that women may be more likely than men to display or experience include:2,4,5

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Trauma symptoms (flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, hyper arousal, and trauma avoidance).
  • Differences in drug effects due to fluctuations in hormones during menstrual cycle.
  • Hoarding unused medications to use later.
  • Combining drugs to increase effectiveness.

Consequences of Substance Misuse in Women

While both men and women face negative consequences of substance misuse—such as social problems, financial issues, associated mental and behavioral health issues, malnutrition, as well as increased risks for hepatitis, HIV, and other bloodborne illnesses with some types of use—there are many adverse effects of drug addiction that are unique to women, including:1,2,4

Woman portraying addict using calculator dealing with financial issues

  • Physical consequences: Women who misuse drugs are more likely than men to experience adverse physical effects on their heart and blood vessels. Women also are at higher risk for assault and are more likely to overdose.
  • Financial and legal problems: Women with drug and alcohol addiction may be more likely to face certain financial and legal problems. They may have difficulties financing addiction treatment or maintaining household expenses, such as rent or mortgage, food, utilities, and childcare. They may also have legal issues surrounding child custody or face issues with child protective services as a result of their substance use.
  • Pregnancy: Women who misuse drugs or alcohol may face unplanned pregnancies as a result of poor safe sex practices while under the influence. Substance abuse during pregnancy can pose many complications and negative outcomes for both the mother and the developing baby.
  • Barriers to treatment: Some studies have suggested that women may be relatively less likely to seek treatment for substance use disorders than men. This may be due to the many gender-specific treatment barriers that they face, including:
    • Social stigmas.
    • Childcare responsibilities.
    • Financial difficulties.
    • Transportation issues.
    • Lack of interpersonal or familial support.

Specialized Detox and Rehab Programs for Women

Research has shown that women-only treatment programs can result in higher satisfaction ratings and lower instances of relapse than traditional addiction treatment programs.4 Some treatment options unique to women include:2,4,5

  • Onsite childcare.
  • Parenting classes.
  • Supportive therapies specific to mothers; victims of rape, prostitution, or domestic violence; women with eating disorders; and other mental health conditions.
  • Care for pregnant or lactating women.
  • Vocational training.
  • Income support.
  • Housing assistance.
  • Social services.
  • Family and couples therapy.

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 Treatment Offered at Womens Only Programs

A variety of addiction treatment options exist for women struggling with substance abuse, including:

Women portraying addict and therapist discussing substance abuse

Finding Addiction Treatment for Women

If you or a loved one is a woman struggling with substance use disorder, it’s important to remember that there is help out there. Evidence-based addiction treatment can help people achieve recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. If you’re ready to seek help, there are steps you can take to find treatment. A good first step would be to reach out to your doctor. They may be able to help determine your medical needs and may be able to refer you to a treatment center.

Additionally, you may consider reaching out to an addiction helpline. American Addiction Centers (AAC) operates one such 24/7 helpline. Our compassionate staff can help answer your questions about addiction, connect you with suitable treatment centers, and verify your insurance benefits. Don’t delay, call us today at to get started.

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