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Women and Prescription Drug Abuse

Table of Contents

When thinking about drug addiction, many of us have an unrealistic image of the problem and those affected. We often assume it involves only the hard stuff, like heroin or crack. We imagine someone suffering from addiction will look disheveled and unkempt and will commit crimes to sustain a desperate habit. While such descriptions may accurately describe some who wrestle with addiction, they tell only a fraction of the story.

The typical perception of addiction does not match the devastating reality taking place in our country. There is a growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse, and it is increasing dramatically among women.

From mothers and homemakers to managers and business executives, millions of women are facing the challenges of addiction. They go about their day, perform their jobs, care for their children and appear to be just like everyone else. But they are dependent on pain medications that are taking a terrible toll.
The Disturbing Reality
Addiction to prescribed medications is not unique to women. The problem is also prevalent among men, who are two to three times more likely than women to have a drug abuse disorder. However, recent studies indicate an alarming escalation of substance abuse and addiction among women. Information provided by the Centers for Disease Control shows the tragic consequences of this disturbing trend:

4.6 million women ages 18 and older misused prescription drugs in the past year.
Nearly 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010.
Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have increased more than 400 percent since 1999, compared to 265 percent among men.
For every woman who dies of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 go to the emergency room for painkiller abuse.
18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the US, with more than 6,600 deaths in 2010 alone.

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Understanding the Causes
Prescription painkiller abuse and overdoses are a serious problem, and there are many complex factors contributing to the rise of these issues among women. Studies documenting differences between the genders have begun to shed light on the development of addiction. Research on sex differences in drug abuse patterns seems to indicate:

Women escalate their drug use more quickly and become addicted in a shorter period of time.
Negative medical consequences develop more rapidly in women, which may contribute to chronic abuse tendencies.
Women who are abstinent after addiction report higher levels of craving and have longer periods of use after abstinence (i.e., during relapses) than do men.
Women begin using some substances earlier and have more severe use levels at intake when entering treatment centers.


This research is still in its infancy. Empirical data is lacking in many specifics, which makes it difficult to formulate definitive conclusions. Ongoing investigation about the specific underlying causes and mechanisms of sex differences will help improve treatment and understanding of drug abuse in both females and males.
Further Complications
The increasing trend for abusing painkillers among woman also creates an additional problem that affects those with legitimate need for pain management. In light of the abuse statistics, many people, often including the physicians and patients themselves, fear that anyone taking opioid medications on a long-term basis will necessarily become addicted. Sadly, this leads to pain patients being wrongly identified as drug seekers and stigmatized for their use of opioid medications.

This widespread misunderstanding of the difference between physical dependence on a drug and addiction has become a frequent and sometimes devastating obstacle for those suffering from chronic pain.

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