October 5, 2022

How Substance Abuse Affects Men and Women Differently

Read time: 7 minutes

When it comes to substance abuse, there are some aspects that most people living with this condition experience. For example, dependence on substances is detrimental to both physical and mental health. It can upend someone’s life by interfering with their relationships, work, and school. For everyone, it requires dedication and perseverance to make it through treatment and sustain recovery. 

As many similarities as there are between people working to overcome substance use disorder, there still remain differences. Some of these can be attributed to environmental, social, or financial reasons. Others can be attributed to individual characteristics or experiences. Someone’s experience depends on the constellation of factors that brought them to addiction and their unique barriers to treatment. Treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) needs to be nuanced and tailored to the needs of an individual and their family.

Variations can also stem from one’s gender. As similar as men and women can be, there are some differences between the sexes regarding substance abuse and recovery. Addiction affects someone biologically just as it affects them physically. The different biological makeups of men and women can lead to differences in the manifestation of substance abuse.

Men, Women, and Their Relationship With Drugs

One key difference is the rate at which men and women use drugs. Out of these two groups, men have an increased likelihood of using illicit substances. Men also are at an increased risk of experiencing a life-threatening complication or emergency, such as an overdose. This does not mean that women are safe from developing SUD. Even though men are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, the rate of developing a SUD remains the same in both groups.

Research suggests that men and women experience the effects of substances differently than men do. Women can be more impacted by withdrawals and relapses than men are, but there are more specific differences that can be seen when looking at individual substances. 

Marijuana Use and Alcohol Consumption

In marijuana addiction, men often experience more severe addiction, while women are prone to acquiring an addiction more quickly. Symptoms can also manifest differently. Men struggle more with addictions to other substances as well as antisocial personality disorder. In contrast, women are more likely to experience anxiety and panic attacks as a result of marijuana use. 

Additionally, women are more sensitive to alcohol, developing a greater blood alcohol level after drinking the same amount as a man. However, men are more likely to engage in binge drinking.

Controlled and Illicit Substances

MDMA use leads to more hallucinations in women than in men, and women are more sensitive to the short-term effects of cocaine acting on the reward center of the brain. The detrimental cognitive effects of cocaine use are similar across these two groups.

Men and women use drugs for different reasons, and this can be seen especially when looking at stimulant use. Women who use methamphetamine are more likely to attribute their substance use to their need for more energy for responsibilities. Another common reason is needing a solution for weight loss. These reasons are less likely to guide men toward methamphetamine use. Increased pain sensitivity in women and the potentially higher prevalence of chronic pain in this population can lead to women taking more opioids, either with or without a prescription. 

Methods of Use

Additionally, the method by which men and women consume drugs and alcohol vary. In the case of heroin, men are more likely to take it intravenously, whereas women take it by other routes. Injecting heroin carries risks that add to the drug’s existing danger, such as contracting a sexually transmitted disease or overdosing. However, men are generally more likely to use greater amounts of nicotine per day. 

Consequences of Substance Use

While the health consequences of SUD are severe for both men and women, they are not identical. Men are more likely to experience a fatal overdose from prescription opioid misuse, and cocaine causes abnormalities in the blood flow to the frontal lobe region of the brain more frequently in men than in women. 

Alcohol carries with it unique dangers for women, such as intoxication leading to increased risk of sexual assault and unplanned pregnancy, and regular alcohol consumption, increasing the risk of developing breast cancer. 

Implications for Treatment 

Typically, more men access treatment than women. This is the case for most cases of substance abuse except for prescription psychiatric medication, for which women are more likely to seek treatment. Although more men utilize treatment services, women tend to enter treatment in more medically complex states due to the quick progression of substance abuse for their gender. Women also experience barriers to treatment that men do not. This can include finding child care and managing treatment while pregnant.

Men and women do not share the same relationship with drugs and alcohol. They use substances differently, have different reasons for their use, and experience other health risks as a result of their addiction. For these reasons, they need different approaches to treatment. It is vital to find a mental health provider capable of getting to know you and your specific needs before creating a unique treatment plan designed to move you closer to recovery. Family-Centered Services offers this individualized approach for you and your family. Our licensed clinicians use years of experience and evidence-based methods to identify your needs and the services that will work best for you. We offer intervention education and preparation, individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, comprehensive case management, and sober accountability. We encourage you to reach out at (509) 991-5822 to learn more about our services.