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How Addiction Hurts Women’s Health

by Jeffrey Juergens ❘  

Addiction Differences in Men and Women

Did you know addiction affects men and women differently? Until the 1990s, research on drug and alcohol addiction mostly focused on men. When they began to study women with these addictions as well, researchers discovered there are clear gender differences in certain types of addiction.

Women progress from using an addictive substance to developing a dependence more quickly than men. They also find it harder to quit using and are more likely to relapse.

Women’s Health and Addiction

While men are more likely to become addicts, women face many other challenges, especially when it comes to their health. Women who become addicted to drugs or alcohol are at a high risk of developing liver problems and brain damage or even dying from an overdose.

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Alcohol-Related Organ Damage

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 5.8 million adult women have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The number of men with AUD is nearly twice that, but the gap is becoming smaller and smaller.

Compared to men, it takes a shorter amount of time and less alcohol for women to develop alcohol-induced liver disease, or alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can lead to liver failure or cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), which women are more likely to die from.

Research also suggests alcohol-induced brain damage happens more quickly in women than in men. Symptoms of brain damage include loss of mental function, reduced brain size and changes in the way brain cells function.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death of both men and women in the US. Even though women who are heavy drinkers consume less alcohol than men over a lifetime, they’re still at a greater risk of developing alcohol-related cardiovascular disease, or alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This is when the heart muscle thins and weakens due to prolonged alcohol abuse. It can lead to many other health problems, including heart failure and death.

Studies have also found that moderate to heavy drinking increases the risk of breast cancer, as well as cancer of the digestive tract, head and neck.

Dangers of Prescription Medications

Men are more likely to die from a prescription painkiller overdose, however this may not be true for much longer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the number of prescription painkiller overdose deaths among women increased by 400% since 1999; in men, deaths increased by 265%—another gender gap that’s narrowing.

There are several factors that may be the cause of this drastic rise in prescription painkiller deaths among women. When compared to men, we see that women:

  • visit doctors more.
  • report higher pain rates.
  • are at a greater risk for chronic pain.
  • are more likely to be prescribed prescription pain medications.
  • are more likely to be prescribed higher doses of prescription pain medications and for longer periods of time.

The CDC also found that women are more likely to die of overdose on a mental health medication, like antidepressants, anxiety medications and sleep aids.

These rising trends of prescription drug addiction and overdose deaths among women are extremely concerning. The need for responsible prescribing of medications and better monitoring of patients for signs of abuse and addiction is greater than ever.

Substance Abuse During Pregnancy

Substance abuse during pregnancy is very dangerous. Not surprisingly, it’s more of a challenge for women than men. A man’s drug or alcohol addiction can have harmful effects on a pregnant woman and her fetus, but it’s harm from an outside factor. A pregnant woman who abuses drugs or alcohol can directly harm her baby. Any substance that enters the mother’s bloodstream also enters the child’s, which can lead to birth defects and other lifelong health problems.

Babies born to women who abuse alcohol during pregnancy are at risk for having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)—an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy, as defined by the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Heart and spine defects, intellectual disability and delayed physical development are just a few of the many effects FASD can have on an individual.

Pregnant women who abuse other drugs, like illicit drugs or prescription medications, during pregnancy put their baby at risk for having many of the same effects of FASD. Their baby is also at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which is when a baby is addicted to the drug its mother abused during pregnancy and goes through withdrawal after birth. This can also cause birth defects and other permanent health issues for the child.

The Need for Gender-Specific Treatment

Given that women face many challenges with addiction that men do not, it’s important these gender differences are considered in the treatment process.

Treatment that works for men does not always work for women.

Specialized programs geared toward women take into account biological differences, as well as social and environmental factors that may lead a woman to abuse drugs or alcohol. Life circumstances and other factors unique to women are also considered, so many gender specific programs treat co-occurring disorders and offer trauma informed treatment.

If you need help finding a women’s treatment center or gender-specific program, contact a treatment provider to discuss rehab options.

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