Understanding Sex Differences in Drug Abuse


For many years, addiction research only examined the effects of drug and alcohol on men. In decades of studies, men were the only participants. Initially, medical bias excluded particular issues women have faced in addiction. In the 1990s, several U.S. organizations established requirements for the inclusion of women as study participants. Since that inclusion, researchers have discovered a number of differences in addiction between the two genders.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, men are typically more likely to abuse illicit drugs and alcohol. The organization concluded that around 11.5% of males over 12 have a substance use disorder, compared to 6.4% of females. However, women are more likely to end up in the emergency or fatally overdose due to substance abuse.

The distinctions between men and women suffering from addiction take a root in the genders’ biological and sociological differences. Many researchers now explain gender differences between the two as a result of the societal impact (such as childcare responsibilities addiction stigma, relationship dynamics, etc). There are also biological differences between men and women, relying primarily on estrogen and testosterone production, as well as average body size and composition, which greatly affect the body.

Addiction: Men vs Women

As defined by Harvard Medical School, the main differences in addiction between men and women center around “susceptibility, recovery, and risk of relapse.” Here is how these differences affect men and women.



  • Men are more likely to become addicted to drugs
  • Men are more likely to abuse substance due to peer pressure or pressure to be part of a group


  • Women are more likely to transition from substance abuse to substance dependence and addiction and do so at a faster pace than men
  • Women are more likely to self-medicate with illicit substances
  • Women are more likely to transition from substance abuse to substance dependence and do so at a faster pace.



  • Men are more likely to stabilize substance abuse at lower doses than women
  • Men are more likely to experience more intense symptoms of alcohol withdrawal than women


  • Are more likely to suffer substance abuse side effects (such as liver damage) and overdose

Risk of Relapse


  • The risk of relapse for men is less likely


  • Women are more likely to experience intense cravings and relapse


angry-bad-john-art-black-and-white-709732When it comes to depressant use, men and women have always more or less followed cultural norms. For much of American history, men were more likely to abuse alcohol and women were more likely to be prescribed and abuse pills (mainly prescription opioids). However, recently the gender gap in depressant abuse grew smaller and smaller. Nowadays, more women are drinking at levels similar to men while overall, more men misuse prescription opioids than women.


addiction-adult-black-and-white-1089423Few of the researchers suggest that women are more sensitive to pain and may experience chronic pain more often than men. Hence, women are also more likely to misuse prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, and synthetic opioids, such as heroin, to self-medicate for pain and anxiety. Furthermore, women tend to develop a dependency on opioids faster than men due to a heightened dopamine response in the brain. More men abuse opioids and more men fatally overdose on this drug. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse,  in 2016, one average of 17 men died per day from prescription opioid overdose, compared to 19 women per day. Conversely, the rate of opioid-related deaths among women rose by %586 between 1999 and 2016 (while deaths among men increased by 312%)

Women, in the first years of an opioid use disorder (OUD), are more likely to fatally overdose. This may because of the continued of prescriptions while abusing heroin at the same time. However, after a few years, women are more likely to survive heroin abuse than men.

When it comes to synthetic opioid addiction, the differences between men and women are more distinct. When compared to men, women suffering from heroin use disorder (HUD) are:

  • Younger
  • More likely to abuse smaller doses for a shorter period of time
  • Less likely to participate in injection drug use

A majority of women who participate in injection drug use report doing so due to pressure from social circles or sexual partners.


addiction-alcoholic-beverages-bar-858466So far, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the United States. Historically, one had higher rates of alcohol abuse. According to data published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 20% of men have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) compared to between 7% and 12% of women. However, recent studies show that women’s drinking habits are falling more in line with their male counterparts.

On the other hand, young females between the ages of 12 and 20 are more likely to be involved in underage drinking and binge drinking than males of the same age.



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