Gender Differences in Addiction

March 12, 2022

Gender Differences in Addiction

Addiction is a highly personal experience that affects each individual differently. The factors and circumstances that lead to someone developing an addiction are many, and you may be surprised to find out that one of the elements to consider is gender.

For years, addiction research only examined drugs and alcohol’s effects on men. This bias has hindered the field of addiction treatment in examining and accommodating the specific issues women face when it comes to treatment and recovery. In recent decades, we have started to see more women included in studies. The results of this crucial inclusion have revealed significant differences in the way addiction impacts women compared to men. Understanding these differences is essential to finding the right treatment programme.


The clearest effect of the relationship between gender and addiction is visible in the rates at which men and women abuse drugs and alcohol. Typically, men are more likely to abuse illicit drugs and alcohol than women and girls. 11.5% of boys and men over 12 have a substance use disorder, compared to 6.4% of women and girls. However, women are more likely to go to the emergency room or fatally overdose due to substance abuse.

In the 1980s, for example, the male/female ratio of alcohol abuse was estimated at 5:1. A more recent survey showed that the gap had narrowed to a male/female ratio of about 3:1.

Notably, age has a significant impact on drug use between the genders. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that among youth ages 12 to 17, the use of illegal drugs is approximately equal.

Men still tend to struggle with substance abuse in greater numbers. The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) is the largest study of substance abuse in recent years. It shows that men are 2.2 times more likely than women to abuse drugs and 1.9 times more likely to develop drug dependence.


While there is a higher incidence of addiction in men than in women, it’s also important to understand the different ways in which women engage with various substances and how that can affect their experience with addiction and recovery.



Women are more likely to develop an addiction at lower drinking levels than men.

Alcohol is by far the most common substance abused in the world. Historically, men had higher rates of alcohol abuse than women. Approximately 20% of men have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), compared to between 7% and 12% of women. Yet recent studies show women’s drinking habits are falling more in line with their male counterparts. On the other hand, adolescent females between the ages of 12 and 20 have higher rates of underage drinking and binge drinking than males of the same age.

One principal reason women become addicted to alcohol faster than men is the lower total percentage of water in the body, which means they need less alcohol to become intoxicated than men do. Additionally, women don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly due to lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase in their digestive systems. Overall, these effects lead to women becoming drunk with less consumption.

The reasons men and women abuse alcohol are different, as well. Men tend to drink to reinforce social bonds or to enhance positive emotions, whereas women drink more to alleviate stress or other negative emotions. Women are also more likely than men to have other psychiatric disorders co-occurring with their alcohol use disorder, increasing the need for appropriate dual diagnosis treatment. Unfortunately, women are also significantly less likely to seek treatment than men.


Opioid abuse and addiction have become an epidemic in the past couple of decades, but some studies show the growth of the problem has disproportionately affected women. Men are more likely to die from a prescription overdose, but women have experienced a more significant increase in overdoses related to opioids. Prenatal opioid use is also growing, and the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased more than five-fold from 2004 to 2014.



Like alcohol and opioids, more men than women abuse marijuana. According to self-reported data, men are almost three times as likely as women to smoke marijuana on a daily basis. The effects of cannabis on both sexes are also interestingly different. Spatial memory impairment may be greater in most women, while men seem to exhibit greater marijuana-induced highs.

Men and women show equal rates of marijuana treatment admissions, and both groups equally suffer from at least 1 other mental health issue (such as depression, anxiety, etc.). Men, however, are more likely to have co-occurring substance use disorders as well as antisocial personality disorders. Women who abuse marijuana are more likely to suffer panic attacks and anxiety disorders.


Women are more likely to enter and complete meth addiction treatment than men.

Both sexes are equally likely to abuse stimulants, though women report first use at a younger age than men. Hormones may explain the biological differences between men and women with stimulant addictions. Women tend to experience more cravings and are more likely to relapse. This is likely due to changes during the menstrual cycle and hormone production.

Human and animal studies suggest that estrogen plays a role in the dopamine “reward” effects of stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. Because of this, women may become addicted faster and take larger doses of stimulants than men because of this. Yet even when women had been abusing stimulants longer, men and women showed similar rates of impairment in learning, concentration, and academic achievement. Additionally, men are more likely to suffer reduced blood flow to the frontal regions of the brain as a result of cocaine use than women.

Other differences in stimulant addiction between men and women stem from cultural differences. Men are more likely to abuse cocaine and meth to continue having a good time, whereas significantly more women report stimulant abuse for more energy (commonly associated with family or work responsibilities) and weight loss. Men are also more likely to switch drugs if they can’t get meth.

Recovering From Addiction

Despite the differences in addiction between men and women, seeking recovery can save a person’s life. If the cost of addiction has become unbearable, contact a treatment provider today. Detox and rehab can be the first steps to a more fulfilling, healthy life.



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