How Gender Affects Substance Abuse Rates and Statistics

Anyone with the genetic predisposition for it can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Up to 10% of people ages 12 and older struggle with addiction in the U.S. Because of the way drugs and alcohol affect the brain, anyone can quickly find themselves physical or emotionally dependent on a drug. However, certain environmental factors and an individual’s unique temperament can influence what types of substances they will try and become addicted to. Can gender affect drug addiction, and what role does it play in substance abuse rates and statistics? The following article will break down substance abuse rates for both men and women.

How does addiction work?

It’s important to understand that addiction is a disease that can affect anyone, regardless of a person’s gender. Addiction starts in the brain, and the brain and the physiological processes that are present in addiction are the same for all people. When someone tries a substance or takes a drink for the first time, certain neurotransmitters that play a role in the neurological risk-reward system become activated. This process is what produces a “high” or similar euphoria.

Rates and Statistics of Abuse by Gender

People can become either emotionally or physically addicted to this high. They will continue to take the drug or continue to drink, but the body develops a tolerance to the substance. The same amount of the substance that the person has been taking won’t produce the high they are looking for, and so they will take more of the drug or drink more alcohol to get the effect they want.

After taking a substance or drinking heavily over a period of time, the brain and the rest of the body become accustomed to functioning with that substance. When someone who is dependent on the substance stops taking it or cuts back on it, they will experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that can vary in intensity.

The physiological processes present in the disease of addiction are the same for men and women. However, there are several notable differences between genders when it comes to addiction rates, emergency room visits from addiction, and rates of relapse.

What are the differences between men and women in substance abuse rates?

Across the spectrum, men have higher rates of substance abuse than women for all drug types, including alcohol. Also, men are more likely than women to overdose and are admitted to the ER for drug or alcohol abuse. But, women are more likely than men to experience intense cravings for drugs, and they are at higher risk of relapsing than men after trying to quit drugs or alcohol.

Currently, there are more men in treatment centers for substance abuse disorder than women. But women who do become addicted are more likely to seek treatment voluntarily than men. When it comes to substance abuse treatment, women are more likely than men to enter rehab for addiction to benzodiazepines and sleep medications. Although men have historically been more likely to enter treatment for heroin and opiate derivatives than women, women’s numbers in treatment centers for these drugs has increased in recent years. Rates of prescription and illegal drug addiction are rising among women.

Although men are between two and three times as likely to become addicted to drugs and suffer higher rates of addiction than women, the addiction process for women is slightly different from men. The higher rates of addiction among men may have less to do with an inherent, gendered vulnerability to drug use, but may instead reflect differences in opportunities to use drugs.

Women tend to exhibit a quicker progression to addiction after the first use of a drug or alcohol. Women will, on average, increase their use of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, and marijuana more quickly than men. Women also tend to have a harder time quitting drugs, including nicotine, than men. Because addiction tends to happen more quickly for women, they often enter rehabilitation with more severe medical and behavioral issues than men who seek treatment.

Also, women face higher barriers to treatment access than their male counterparts. Women who are pregnant or who have young children are often reluctant to seek treatment because they are afraid of losing custody of their children. In addition, many women who struggle with addiction are primary caregivers to small children and do not have anyone to care for their children if they are in a treatment center. Family responsibilities often keep women from getting the care they need for themselves.

Also, many clinical studies have been conducted on the differences in relapse rates for men and women. Women, in particular, are more susceptible to cravings for drugs and relapsing based on menstrual cycle phases. When hormones progesterone and estrogen fall during the late luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, these hormones can worsen anxiety symptoms that often occur when someone withdraws from drugs or alcohol.

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Men and women both benefit from an integrated treatment plan for substance abuse and addiction. Treatment that uses therapy along with medical detox and mental health care can help men and women achieve and maintain sobriety. For treatment to be more successful for women, however, they may need access to more resources both before and after entering rehab.

For women who are caregivers, they need access to reliable childcare in order to complete a detox and rehabilitation program. Accessing childcare can be prohibitive for families headed by an addicted female caregiver. In these cases, intensive outpatient rehabilitation can successfully treat female patients. Although inpatient rehab is usually recommended for severe cases of addiction, outpatient treatment can also be effective for helping female and male patients achieve and maintain sobriety. Because women tend to have higher rates of relapse, they will typically need access to more intensive aftercare programs than men.

Addiction is an equal-opportunity disease, and it can happen to anyone. If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance use disorder, there is help available. The representatives at Windward Way are waiting to help you and your family overcome the disease of drug addiction. Please contact them today to explore your options for treatment.


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