11 Facts on Women and Addiction

When we look around at the women in our world in the U.S., what are we likely to see with regard to women and addiction – her co-workers, her neighbors, the parents of her children’s friends, women in line at the grocery store? How many of these women abuse drugs or alcohol, how many have addictions, and what’s going on with them if they do have problems and/or addictions?

  1. flower by Nancy BrauerAccording to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, to maintain “low-risk drinking,” women should have no more than 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. Over 48% of women in the U.S. are at that maximum level of a drink per day.
  2. In the U.S., 15.8 million women aged 18 or older, or 12.9 percent, have used illegal drugs in the past year.
  3. According to the World Health Organization, in developed countries like the U.S., 1 in 12 women develop alcohol dependence during their lives.
  4. Addiction occurs more often in men than in women, but this gap is closing. Also, once women start substance use, they are more likely to develop dependence than men are, a phenomenon known in the scientific community as telescoping.
  5. Women are more likely to experience negative social and physical effects of addiction, and faster, than men.
  6. Women encounter more barriers to treatment for addiction than men do, such as childcare difficulties, social stigma, financial difficulties, and relating to predominantly male staff.
  7. Female smokers have greater health risks than male smokers, including double the risk for heart attack. Research suggests that quitting smoking can be more difficult for women, particularly during the first 14 days of their menstrual cycle (the follicular phase) due to hormonal changes.
  8. Co-occurring disorders are prevalent in women with substance use disorders. 29.7% of women with substance use disorders in a particular study (24,575 individuals) were diagnosed with mood disorders, and 26.2% with anxiety disorders. Additionally, eating disorders co-occur in 40% of women with substance use disorders.
  9. Over 50% of women in the U.S. experience trauma in their lifetimes. Rates of physical or sexual abuse range from 55% to 99% of treatment-seeking women with substance abuse disorders. 20-25% of people who experience trauma develop PTSD, putting them at elevated risk for a substance use disorder, which in turn can exacerbate their PTSD symptoms. Up to 3/4 of people who survive violence or trauma have drinking problems. About 80% of women in treatment for addiction experienced sexual or physical assault in their lifetimes.
  10. Women are especially susceptible to developing alcohol substance use disorders due to lower levels of water in their bodies, higher fat content, and lower levels of the protein that metabolizes alcohol. Women are also, particularly due to slow metabolization of alcohol, more likely to develop health problems due to alcohol use, and faster, than men.
  11. Most of the women who enter substance abuse treatment are mothers. Mothers are more likely to complete and comply with treatment if they retain custody of their children. However, of the women who quit smoking during pregnancy, 65% relapse within 6 months of delivery. Between 2005 and 2009, 1,015 infant deaths per year were caused by smoking tobacco during pregnancy. Overall, risk of stillbirth is 2 to 3 times greater for pregnant women who smoke tobacco or marijuana, take prescription pain relievers, or use illegal drugs during pregnancy. Yet a pregnant woman who withdraws suddenly from alcohol or drug use, legal or illegal, without medical help, puts her baby at risk.

Women may become addicted to substances less often than men, but the consequences are potentially more severe for them when they do. On the whole, this information suggests that women may have better treatment outcomes in programs tailored to the specific challenges of their gender. Mindfulness of child care, menstrual cycles and menopause, treatment of co-occurring disorders, and a prevalence of female treatment providers are some ways in which addictions treatment could be improved to help women.

Photo credit: Nancy Brauer

Laurel Sindewald is Executive Director of Handshake Media, Incorporated, publishers of the free addictions recovery smartphone app, New2Recovery.

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