Recent research has shown that women tend to use drugs and react to drugs differently. Women also have special difficulties in getting effective treatment. Obstacles range from finding child care or being prescribed treatment that hasn’t been sufficiently tested on women.

It is a fact that men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit (illegal) drugs and to misuse prescription drugs. This causes men to be more likely to end up with emergency room visits and overdose deaths. For most age groups, men have greater rates of dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than women.

On the other hand, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder (SUD). Additionally, women may be more inclined to experience cravings and relapse. These are key phases of the addiction cycle. 

Gender Differences in Substance Abuse

Even though the rate of substance abuse and dependence is higher among men, the more recent prevalence rates show that a diagnosis of SUD is not specific to any gender. The latest studies on gender differences over the last 25 years tell us clearly that male and female substance abusers are not the same. Some of the differences are:substance use

  • Men have a higher rate of dependence on alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs
  • Women usually begin using substances later than men
  • A woman is likely to be influenced by a spouse or boyfriend to use a substance
  • Women report different reasons for maintaining their use
  • Women tend to enter treatment earlier in the development of their illness
  • Women also have a notably higher rate of comorbid (co-occurring) psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety than do men. And these disorders usually occur before the start of substance abuse problems.
  • Women may use alcohol to self-medicate mood disorders while this is generally not true for men.
  • Although comorbid disorders make treatment more complicated, women respond to treatment as well as men do.

Gender, Sex, and the Effects of Illicit Drugs

The differences in how women and men use substances and react to them are affected by sex (biology) and gender (differences based on culturally defined roles).


Human and animal research suggests that women might be more open to the rewarding effects of stimulants. Estrogen is possibly one of the factors for this increased sensitivity. In animal studies, females were quicker to start taking cocaine and take it in larger amounts than males. Women may also be more sensitive to cocaine’s effects on the heart and blood vessels than men.

Cocaine and Brain Differences

However, male and female cocaine users show similar losses in learning, concentration, and scholastic achievement. This was true even if women had been using it longer. Interestingly, female cocaine users are also less likely than males to display abnormalities in blood flow in the brain’s frontal regions. This suggests that there is a sex-related process that may protect women from the damaging effects of cocaine on the brain. 


Women report using meth because they believe it will increase energy and decrease tiredness related to work, home care, child care, and other family responsibilities. Another incentive to use that women mention is weight loss. This reason is reported considerably more by women than by men. Women who use methamphetamine have high rates of co-occurring depression.

Women also tend to begin using methamphetamine at an earlier age than men. They are also less likely to switch to a different drug when they can’t get meth. And as with other substances, women tend to be more receptive than men to treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Heroin and Gender Risks

Studies of heroin use between the genders show that compared with men, women:

  • Younger
  • Likely to use smaller amounts and for a shorter period of time
  • Less likely to inject the drug
  • More influenced by heroin-using sexual partners

One study showed that women are more at risk for overdose death than men during the first few years of injecting heroin. However, it’s not clear why that is. A possibility is that women who inject heroin are more likely than their male partners to also use prescription drugs. Quite a dangerous combination.

In a strange twist, women who don’t overdose in the first few years are more likely than men to survive in the long term. Researchers suspect this could be due to the differences in treatment and other factors in the environment that have an impact on heroin use.

Differences in Misuse of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug misuse is:

  • Use of a medication without a prescription
  • Use of a medication in a way other than as prescribed
  • Use of a medication for the experience of feelings caused
  • Misuse of prescription drugs can be dangerous if mixed without advice from a physician or mixed with alcohol.

Prescription Opioids

Some research tells us that women are more sensitive to pain than men. And they are more likely to experience chronic pain. This would contribute to the high rates of opioid prescriptions among women of reproductive age. differences between men and women

Also, women are more likely to take prescription opioids without a prescription to help deal with pain—even when men and women report similar levels of pain. It has also been revealed that women are more likely to misuse prescription opioids to self-treat for other problems such as anxiety or tension.

One of the unfortunate results of prescription opioid misuse is a fatal overdose. This is because opioids suppress breathing. Statistics show that in 2016, 7,109 women and 9,978 men died from a prescription opioid overdose. This is about 19 women per day compared to about 27 men per day dying from an overdose. Results show that women between the ages of 45 and 54 are more likely than women of other ages to die from a prescription opioid overdose.

Health Effects of Gender on Alcohol Use Disorder

Generally speaking, men have higher rates of alcohol use, including binge drinking. However, among young adults, girls ages 12 to 20 have a slightly higher rate of alcohol misuse and binge drinking than males of the same age.

Women’s health is more likely to be damaged from long-term drinking than a man’s. This is true even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for a shorter length of time. If you compare people with alcohol use disorders (AUDs), women have death rates 50 to 100% higher than men. This includes deaths from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease, liver disease, and stroke. 

Alcohol Risks for Women

Besides that, some other health risks are specific to female drinkers.

For example:

  • Increased risk of unprotected sex resulting in pregnancy or disease
  • Increased risk of becoming a victim of violence and sexual assault
  • Higher risk of breast cancer

Alcohol Metabolism

Men and women process alcohol in their bodies differently. This is likely due to the differences in stomach tissue activity. In fact, after drinking similar amounts of alcohol, women have higher blood alcohol concentrations. Because of this, women become intoxicated from smaller quantities of alcohol than men.

Gender Differences in SUD Treatment

Although there are more men than women in treatment for substance use disorders, women are more likely to seek treatment for addiction to sedatives such as anti-anxiety and sleep medications. Also, men have been more likely in the past to seek treatment for heroin use but the rate of women getting treatment has increased in recent decades. 


SUDs may progress differently for women than for men. On one hand, women often have a shorter history of using certain substances such as cocaine, opioids, marijuana, or alcohol. On the other hand, they usually enter treatment with more severe medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems. 

Women show a quicker progression from first using the substance to developing a dependence. This is known as telescoping. In other words, a woman can go from “having a drink with the girls to full-blown addiction in a compressed, or telescoped amount of time when compared to a man’s.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment Admissions

Frequently, women who are pregnant or have young children do not seek treatment. Or if they do, they drop out of their treatment program early because of the difficulty of finding someone to care for their children during their treatment program. Some women are afraid that the authorities will remove their children to foster care. Combining the stress of home care, child care, other family obligations, and attending treatment on top of that can be overwhelming. 

For treatment to be successful, it needs to provide extra support to handle these needs. The obstacles to treatment for women are being looked at in many treatment settings to try to encourage women to enter treatment. Family and couples therapy are becoming standard therapeutic actions.

For years, knowledge of the nature and treatment of substance use disorders came from research conducted on men. The majority of research on substance abuse in women has only been published in the last few decades. Understanding how substance use disorders are different for women than men is important for making the best use of prevention and treatment and to make sure that treatments tested on men are effective for women.

You Need Specialized Treatment

Whether you are male or female, you need and deserve specialized treatment. At Unity Behavioral Health, we understand that. You can get treatment designed to address your needs and preferences. Because we have experienced medical professionals, we are equipped to take care of any issues and look forward to helping you face your challenges and come out ready to live a fulfilling life in the end. 

For yourself or someone you care about there is simply no reason to wait. It will only get more difficult. We understand you are hesitant and have questions. Contact us now and let’s get you on the road to a better future.


Get Help Now

Speak to one of our experienced and caring representatives at Unity Behavioral Health to learn about how our rehab programs can help your loved one defeat addiction.


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