Women & Substance Abuse: The Effects of Addiction on Females

Table of Contents

Three percent of American women suffer from drug addiction, while 10.4% suffer from an addiction to alcohol 6. For women, addiction is rarely just a substance abuse issue and does not occur in isolation. Social, economic, and personal history can influence addiction and the needed treatments. 

Women suffering from a substance use disorder may have a special set of circumstances and struggles that can be addressed and helped through treatment services. Developing individualized treatment plans for women with substance abuse can be beneficial and vital to finding lasting recovery. 

Drug Abuse & Women's Health

Drug and alcohol abuse is not associated with good health for men or women. However, women can develop substance use disorders more quickly than men. Unfortunately, substance use disorder (SUD) affects 5.7% of women in the US, and numbers are rising throughout the world6.

Although illicit and legal substances have not been studied for physiological effects on women, research has shown that certain substances can cause adverse effects9. Stimulants, opioids, and prescription drugs can cause abnormalities in gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, and cardiac systems. In addition, these drugs can cause changes and difficulties with a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently than Men?

Due to an average lower body mass and lower volume of blood, women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood than men after similar doses1. Women’s bodies also appear to eliminate alcohol from the blood faster than men’s. Women develop more severe problems and complications from excessive drinking and they tend to appear at a faster rate.

Complications and problems that women can suffer as a result of alcohol abuse include10:

Differences Between Men & Women with Addiction

The distinctions between men and women suffering from addiction can be caused by biological and sociological differences. Although there is no one cause of addiction, these two factors can increase the risk for addiction in each gender. The initial exposure, rate of addiction, and relapse occurrence can differ between men and women.

Risk Factors

While men are more likely to develop a dependency than women, women often develop dependencies faster than men. This gender is also more likely to transition from substance abuse to addiction or dependence. When beginning the substance abuse process, men are more likely to succumb to peer pressure, while women are more likely to self-medicate than men.

A contributing factor to self-medication is that women who experience domestic violence or sexual assault are more likely to self-medicate with illicit and prescription drugs. Women experience these kinds of trauma at higher rates than men. Survivors of abuse may become dependent on alcohol and drugs to manage trauma symptoms or ongoing traumatic events.

Relapse Risk

Unfortunately, even after treatment, the average relapse rate for someone with SUD is over 40% with some studies suggesting rates as high as 60%5. While little is known about the causes, studies suggest that women are more likely than men to experience intense cravings during both early and late recovery.

Consequently, women are more likely than men to relapse on average. Treatment retention for women has been researched and found that women with higher education levels are more likely to stay in treatment8. Women who are pregnant and late in their pregnancy are more likely to stay in treatment, while women early in pregnancy are more likely to leave early.

Signs & Symptoms of Substance Abuse in Women

The signs and symptoms of substance abuse in women tend to be similar to men, but there are additional factors that create several different symptoms. Biological and cultural differences in women versus men can lead to developing different signs and symptoms.


While illicit drugs are often used for self-medicating, prescription drug abuse and alcohol abuse can also be used. Constantly running out of prescription medicines, drinking excessively, or showing signs of addiction as a result of a mental illness, can be a sign of self-medicating7.

Common causes of self-medicating include:

Trauma is commonly a cause of self-medication in women. Women may use drugs and alcohol to reduce trauma symptoms or ongoing traumatic experiences. However, this does not solve issues and can cause a worsening of symptoms. Self-medicating can begin triggering new mental health problems as well as making current mental health problems worse.


Female symptoms of substance abuse may present similarly to those in men, with the exception of menstrual and hormonal changes. Different substances may be used to produce different effects. The drug classes stimulants produce euphoria and tend to increase energy levels. Depressants tend to produce a calming effect, the opposite of stimulants.

General symptoms of addiction include:

Physical Signs

Depending on the different substances being used, different physical changes may occur.

Physical signs can be apparent including:

Social and Behavioral Signs

Significant changes in social behavior are another sign of substance abuse or misuse. Chronically missing social events, work, or family obligations are common signs of addiction.

Behavioral changes can also be a sign of addiction or substance abuse. Secretive behaviors and lying can be common with drug and alcohol addiction.

Financial distress can occur with substance abuse due to the cost of maintaining the habit. Theft and constant borrowing behaviors can arise as a result of financial distress.

Women can see an increase in anxious tendencies as a result of substance abuse and addiction. Certain drugs, like stimulants, can increase the risk of panic disorders and attacks in women.

Women & Substance Abuse Treatment

Women only account for about 33% of patients attending substance abuse treatment centers9. However, women are more likely to experience health complications and overdose, so the longer treatment is put off, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

How Treatment Differs for Women

Relationships are a part of a woman’s identity, sources of self-esteem, provide context for decision making, and can help support daily life3. Treatment can focus on healing relationships and analyzing current relationships in the woman’s life. Tools to help women build healthy relationships with new people or restructure old relationships can include working with communication, stress management, assertiveness, problem-solving, and parenting skills.

Supportive therapies are a benefit to women because women tend to have lower self-esteem than men. Approaches to therapy should be based on awareness, understanding, and trust in order to produce more effective results.

Women may do better and last longer in treatment if their primary needs are met. Once the primary needs are met, trust can be built and the focus can be on the issue of substance abuse.

Same-sex treatment may be beneficial for women because women may feel more open to talking about issues of abuse, assault, and relationships. Women may benefit from a female therapist that is non-authoritarian, confident while projecting acceptance and care.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Women may be diagnosed with dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders if they are struggling with substance abuse and other mental health conditions. Women are at higher risk for developing other mental health conditions while struggling with addiction.

Common co-occurring disorders from women include4:

Dual diagnosis treatment can be essential to finding recovery from substance use disorders and mental health disorders. In dual diagnosis treatment centers, both conditions are given the same amount of attention. Treating both disorders at the same time provides a better success rate and better treatment retention.

Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care is especially important for the treatment of women2. This is an integrative approach that offers support to help with coping and awareness of traumatic events. More than half of women looking for substance use treatment have experienced at least one traumatic event.

Drug and alcohol rehab centers can become trauma-informed by:

Substance abuse and trauma combined can present a multitude of other issues like psychological symptoms or mental health disorders and a lack of social support. Experiencing trauma can lead to symptoms of PTSD and a need for additional treatment services.

Find Recovery from Addiction

Women have a unique set of challenges when it comes to substance use disorders and finding recovery. Women’s bodies can react differently to drugs and alcohol and can develop an addiction at a faster rate than men. Women may require additional and different treatment modalities in order to sustain long-term recovery.

The sooner you find treatment for yourself or a loved one, the better it will be for overall health. Start your recovery journey today at Healthy Life Recovery. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse contact us today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our program.


  1. 1. Berkheiser, K. (2020, May 11). How much alcohol is too much? Healthline. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-alcohol-is-too-much
  2. 2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). (2014). Trauma-informed care: A sociocultural perspective. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207195/
  3. 3. JBS International, & The Center for Children and Family Futures. (2007). Family-Centered Treatment for Women with Substance Use Disorders – History, Key Elements, and Challenges. SAMSHA. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/family_treatment_paper508v.pdf
  4. 4. Lesser , B. (2021, March 23). Typical Women’s Mental Health Issues. Dualdiagnosis.org. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://dualdiagnosis.org/mental-health-and-addiction/common-issues-women/
  5. 5. Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006, February). Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders. Addiction (Abingdon, England). Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1976118/
  6. 6. Recovery Research Institute Staff. (2018). Women in Recovery. Recovery Research Institute. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.recoveryanswers.org/resource/women-in-recovery/
  7. 7. Robinson, L., & Smith, M. (2021, October). Self-medicating depression, anxiety, and stress. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/self-medicating.htm
  8. 8. SAMSHA. (2009). 5 treatment engagement, placement, and planning. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women [Internet]. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83238/
  9. 9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014, April 3). Gender differences. SAMSHA. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/sr077-gender-differences-2014.pdf
  10. 10. US Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Tip 51 Substance Abuse Treatment Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. SAMSHA. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma15-3991.pdf
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