The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that while both men and women can become addicted, opiate addiction affects men and women very differently.
NIDA reports that women experience more damage to the heart and blood vessels. Women are also more likely to go to the emergency room, and are more likely to die from overdose.
Women also tend to experience more severe cravings and are more likely to relapse after completion of drug and alcohol treatment or rehab. Researchers aren’t sure if cravings are associated with the menstrual cycle.
How do Women Become Addicted to Opiates?
Women experience more chronic pain than men, and are more likely to head to the doctor for help with pain relief. Doctors typically hand out more prescriptions to women, and they generally prescribe opioid painkillers for longer periods of time.
As a result, women not only have easier access to painkillers, but they advance from initial use to addiction more quickly than men. When women decide to stop, withdrawal can be more intense.
Research also indicates that women who are addicted to opiates have a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and eating disorders than their male counterparts. Researchers aren’t sure if mental health problems cause women to self-medicate with painkillers, or if the reverse is true.
Opioid Addiction in Women: Opioid Use in Pregnancy
Use of opioid drugs is risky for women and presents serious threats to their unborn children. Women who use opioid drugs are more likely to experience miscarriage, and the risk of stillbirth is two to three times higher than for women who don’t use opioid drugs.
Women may also experience high blood pressure and other problems that can affect both mother and child.
Babies born to opioid-addicted women may go through withdrawal after birth, a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Severity of neonatal abstinence syndrome depends on several factors, including how long the mother used opioid drugs and how much of the substance was used.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), estimates that nearly six out of every 1,000 babies born in the United States are diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome. The number may actually be much higher because not all states collect pertinent data.
Typical symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome include:
- Blotchy skin
- Excessive crying
- Blotchy skin
- Eating problems
Opioid use in pregnancy may also cause the following problems for infants:
- Birth defects
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Small head size
- Problems with memory and learning
- Behavioral problems
- Mental or physical developmental delays
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Opioid Addiction in Women: Treatment is also Different
Men are more likely to seek treatment for opioid addiction, probably due to society’s expectation that women are required to be good mothers, wives and caretakers. The resulting stigma is a barrier for many women.
Frequently, women who are addicted to opioid drugs are reluctant to seek help for fear that their children may be taken away by the legal system. Also, it’s often difficult for women to balance responsibilities of family and work.
Many women, especially those who are victims of sexual or domestic violence, are uncomfortable with male counselors, thus responding better to female counselors. Similarly, they tend to prefer gender-specific treatment over mixed groups.
The National INstitute of Health (NIH) reports that although women are less likely to seek drug treatment or rehab than men, they are just as successful once they enter treatment.
If you are addicted to opioid drugs, don’t wait to seek treatment; the problem will only get worse without help.
If you are pregnant, seek medical help immediately and never attempt to stop using opioid drugs on your own. Stopping suddenly can put your unborn child at risk.