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  • Addiction In Men & Women | Differences & Treatment

    Addiction In Men & Women | Differences & Treatment

    Like most diseases, drug addiction (also called substance use disorder) affects both men and women. 

    However, for many years, addiction research focused solely on men. In the 1980s, when researchers started studying women as well, they found that sex and gender impact a person’s experience of addiction.

    Sex & Gender Differences In Drug Abuse & Addiction

    Drug addiction begins with drug abuse. In many ways, women and men abuse drugs differently

    First, men are more likely than women to engage in nearly all types of illicit drug use. They also face a higher risk of drug-related emergency room visits and overdose deaths.

    However, women tend to experience drug addiction more intensely. Although they often start using drugs at lower doses than men, their drug use turns into addiction more quickly. This is called “telescoping.” 

    In addition, once women start addiction treatment, they may be more likely to relapse (start using drugs again) than men. 

    Other addiction-related sex and gender differences depend on the type of drug used:


    Among all age groups except teenagers, men have higher rates of alcohol abuse, including binge drinking (drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time). They’re also much more likely than women to develop alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction).

    Cannabis (Marijuana)

    Regardless of sex, most people who develop marijuana use disorder have at least one co-occurring mental health issue

    However, women are more likely to experience co-occurring panic attacks and anxiety disorders, while men are more likely to experience co-occurring substance use problems and antisocial personality disorder


    Some studies suggest that the female sex hormone estrogen makes women more likely to experience the rewarding effects of stimulant drugs, including cocaine

    Also, some women who use cocaine report more intense cravings for the drug during the ovulation phase of the menstrual cycle. These effects may make women with cocaine addiction more likely to relapse than men. 


    During their first few years of regularly injecting heroin, women with heroin addiction face a higher risk of overdose death than men. However, women who survive those first years are more likely than men to avoid overdose death throughout their lives. 

    Methamphetamine (Meth)

    As with cocaine, women may be more likely than men to experience the stimulating, rewarding effects of meth. They also tend to develop more severe meth addictions than men. In addition, they’re usually more receptive to treatment.

    Prescription Opioids

    Although men are more likely to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs, women may be more likely to abuse prescription opioids (such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin). However, men who abuse prescription opioids face a higher risk of overdose death. 

    Prescription Sedatives

    Prescription sedatives, such as benzodiazepines and sleeping pills, treat anxiety and insomnia. These issues affect women more often than men. Thus, women may be more likely to be prescribed sedatives and become addicted to them. 

    Sex & Gender Differences In Addiction Treatment

    In general, women face more barriers to drug treatment than men. 

    For example, women who are pregnant or have small children may avoid or drop out of treatment because they can’t find childcare. Women are also less likely to afford treatment because they tend to earn less money than men.

    In addition, women face a higher risk of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. 

    People with co-occurring disorders should receive dual diagnosis treatment, which addresses substance abuse alongside other mental health problems. Unfortunately, not all addiction treatment centers offer dual diagnosis treatment

    Men may also experience gender-specific treatment concerns. For instance, some men worry that seeking treatment makes them weak. Others have trouble expressing their emotions during therapy. 

    Similarly, they may struggle to discuss traumas that contributed to their drug use, such as male sexual abuse. 

    Due to these issues, many people prefer gender-specific treatment.

    What Is Gender-Specific Treatment?

    A gender-specific treatment program addresses gender-specific issues that may arise during addiction recovery. 

    For example, in a women-specific program, treatment providers receive training on common women’s issues, such as:

    • co-occurring depression and anxiety
    • physical and sexual abuse
    • motherhood and childcare concerns
    • financial concerns

    Similarly, a men-specific program addresses issues such as:

    • difficulty expressing emotions
    • fears about being viewed as weak
    • male sexual abuse

    In both types of gender-specific treatment, patients tend to feel more comfortable opening up among people of the same gender. When they share their feelings and experiences, they can better understand their addictions and recover more quickly. 

    If you or a loved one struggles with drug addiction, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our substance abuse treatment facilities offer comprehensive, personalized care, including gender-specific treatment.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use Disorder Treatment
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - SEX DIFFERENCES, GENDER AND ADDICTION

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on August 22, 2022
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