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Understanding Drug Addiction in Women

Every person is unique in their own way. Whether a person is male or female plays a role in how they approach different situations. When treating drug addiction, it is important to treat the individual — and gender should be considered when someone is undergoing treatment. A treatment program needs to be tailored to address a person’s particular needs, and women have different needs than when it comes to substance abuse treatment.

Sex and Gender Differences

Men are generally more likely to use illicit drugs. “Illicit” refers to illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs. Although men are more likely use and abuse drugs, women are just as likely to become addicted. Women are more likely to get caught in the addiction cycle as they are more susceptible to cravings and relapse. Women in certain minority groups also face unique issues with regards to drug use and treatment needs. African-American and Native Alaskan women are more likely to be victims of rape or physical violence than women of other ethnic groups. These issues are risk factors for substance abuse. Research shows that women often use drugs differently, respond to drugs differently and face unique obstacles to effective treatment. These obstacles may be as simple as not being able to find child care.

Opiate Abuse

Classically opiate was a term used to mean a drug derived from opium. Opioid designates all substances that bind opiate receptors in the brain. This includes both natural and synthetic substances. Opiates are typically prescribed to relieve pain. Prolonged use can lead to addiction and abuse. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, meperidine, codeine and fentanyl are common opiate prescription painkillers. Heroin is also an opiate.

When a person takes an opiate, it enters the brain through the bloodstream and creates a flood of artificial endorphins and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of reward, pleasure and satisfaction. The high that occurs cannot be obtained naturally. It can only be experienced when using a drug.

After repeated use, the brain stops creating its own dopamine and endorphins. This limits a person’s ability to experience pleasure naturally. An individual first experiences tolerance and need larger doses to get the same high. Then, they become physically dependent. They will experience withdrawals if they stop using the drug. The hallmark of addiction is the final phase, psychological dependence. Cravings set in.

Many heroin users become addicted through prescription medications. These individuals become addicted to opiates after an injury. Once the pain is gone, they need the drug to appease their physical dependence. Some abusers fake pain to receive refills on prescriptions or doctor shop different doctors to obtain multiple prescriptions at once. They switch to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Opiate Addiction in Women

Women are more likely to visit a doctor than men. They seek out medical treatment for everything from backaches to monthly cramps. This means they are more likely to receive a prescription to help ease their pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women are more likely to be prescribed a higher dose of pain pills for longer periods of time than men.

Women’s bodies are made up of more fat and less water, so their bodies metabolize drugs and alcohol differently. During menstruation, women will feel a decreasing effect from the opiates they take. All of the factors put women at a higher risk of opiate overdose.


There are many hurdles for women to overcome when it comes to treatment. Women are more likely to be victims in abusive relationships. The shame of trauma creates an insurmountable obstacle. If they do make it to a treatment clinic, they are less likely to open up about lifestyle issues. They worry about finding child care and losing their children if they are found out.

The good news is that women absorb lessons learned in treatment more quickly. When they finally show up to a facility, they are more likely to make good progress. Because relationships are so important, they tend to work harder to get well. Women do well with 12-step programs that encourage connection with others. Breakthrough drugs like ibogaine are helping addicts alleviate physical withdrawal symptoms.

Drug addiction affects people differently. The road to addiction is different for each person as well. Many women become addicted to opiates through prescription drugs and are faced with the obstacle of shame when it comes to seeking out treatment. Understanding sex and gender differences when it comes to addiction treatment can go a long way in healing.

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