Alcohol addiction can affect people differently. These effects depend on many risk factors. Factors can include the severity of addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Even whether someone is a man or woman can play a role in the symptoms of alcohol addiction, what their alcohol withdrawal symptoms look like, and the type of treatment that will be most effective for them.
Rates of Alcohol Use Disorder in Men vs. Women
Alcohol addiction is twice as common in men as in women. Men are more at risk for developing a problematic drinking habit. There’s also a higher risk of dependence on alcohol in men than women.
Along with alcohol, men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs. Men have a higher likelihood of going to the emergency room or overdosing due to illegal drug use.
While men have higher abuse rates and dependence on drugs and alcohol, women are also highly susceptible to the addiction cycle.
- While men generally have higher alcohol misuse and binge drinking rates, there’s one exception in young adults. Females between the ages of 12 and 20 have slightly higher alcohol misuse and binge drinking rates.
- Prescription opioids are an exception as far as addiction rates. Research shows women are more likely to experience pain, including chronic pain. This fact could contribute to higher rates of opioid prescriptions among women.
- Women are more likely to take prescription opioids without a prescription to deal with pain and more likely to abuse prescription opioids to self-medicate problems like anxiety.
Health Effects of Alcohol
Over the long term, the effects of alcohol are likely to cause more damage to a woman’s health than men due to the metabolism of alcohol. This remains true even if the woman drinks less alcohol or has been drinking for a shorter period.
- When we compare people with an alcohol use disorder, women’s death rates are 50-100% higher than men’s. These death rates include suicide, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and alcohol-related accidents.
- There are also health risks that are unique to women rather than men. Heavy drinking is associated with a higher likelihood of pregnancy or disease from unprotected sex.
- Women who drink heavily are more at risk of being victims of sexual assault or violence.
- Even moderate drinking puts women at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. This is especially true in women with a family history of breast cancer or post-menopausal.
- Males and females metabolize alcohol differently, which may play a role in some of the differences in the effects.
- Women will usually have less water content and lean body mass than men. Body water can diffuse alcohol content as you digest it. This means that women may have a greater alcohol concentration in their blood when they drink.
- Women become more impaired by neurotoxic effects. There’s more exposure of the brain systems and organs to alcohol before the body breaks it down. These are why women tend to see more significant and detrimental short- and long-term alcohol effects.
- Women develop the alcohol-related liver disease more quickly, including hepatitis and cirrhosis.
- Females may be more susceptible to gastrointestinal cancers from alcohol intake and alcohol abuse.
- High blood pressure, nutritional deficiencies, and anemia are more likely following long-term excessive drinking by women. Women struggling with heavy alcohol use should speak to their health professionals about these complications.
How Addiction Affects Women Differently
Along with alcohol’s health and physical effects, addiction can look different in women. Differences between men and women as far as alcohol addiction and other addictions include:
- Exposure age: Women are less likely to have exposure to alcohol or drugs at a young age than men. Instead, addiction tends to occur later in life, often due to self-medication or prescription.
- Escalation rate: Women are more likely to rapidly increase the frequency of using an addictive substance. Men may develop a tolerance to alcohol faster because of how their body processes it, but women may move to a level of excessive alcohol intake more quickly.
- Withdrawal: Alcohol withdrawal and drug withdrawal symptoms tend to be more significant for women, while men are more likely to have mild symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may last longer in addition to the risk of severe symptoms. Severe withdrawal symptoms when someone is alcohol-dependent can include visual hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal seizures.
- Relapse: Overall, women may have a higher risk of relapse than men after a period of abstinence from alcohol. Cravings for alcohol are often stronger for women.
Researchers are starting to piece together why there are differences in addiction patterns and outcomes between men and women. Men may be more likely to use drugs or alcohol at an early age. However, men may also experience less stigma, and they are more likely to seek treatment following their family’s encouragement or due to a court mandate.
Women tend to feel there’s more of a stigma surrounding addiction. Women may resist getting help because of this perception.
Addiction is progressive without treatment, so women may wait until a significant complication such as an overdose.
As a woman, you may be less likely to get treatment for alcohol or drug addiction because of family dynamics and childcare responsibilities.
Treatment plans for women should include their withdrawal symptoms, behavioral therapy, medication-assisted treatment in some cases, and consideration for family responsibilities and dynamics.
When a woman seeks addiction treatment, it needs to be gender-specific. Women’s psychological needs tend to be different and their physical needs.
- Women are more likely to have co-occurring mental disorders and alcohol dependence syndrome.
- It’s more likely for a woman to meet the criteria for mental health issues like mood disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD.
- Women are more likely to have experienced trauma. This trauma could include physical or sexual abuse or interpersonal violence.
- Childhood and adulthood sexual abuse rates are much higher for women than men.
These factors dictate the type of treatment women need and the alcohol support services that will be helpful for them. Trauma-informed treatment is critical if this is something a woman has experienced.
We’ll often see women diagnosed with psychiatric disorders like borderline personality disorder more often than men. What might be happening is a trauma response. Mental health professionals should treat that trauma accordingly in addition to treating the addiction to alcohol or drugs.
A trauma-specific treatment plan considers the complex relationship between trauma, environmental factors, and substance use disorders.
Overcoming Treatment Barriers
As a woman, you may feel like societal factors or family responsibilities hold you back from treatment. However, the impact of not getting treatment for alcohol addiction or co-occurring mental health disorders can ultimately lead to irreversible damage.
We understand that women have different experiences and, as a result, different treatment needs to be compared to men. Your experiences throughout your life shape where you are now and where you can go.
Finally, you might participate in a 12-step support group like Alcoholics Anonymous following rehab. Some groups are gender-specific, which may be a preference for you. Medications for managing alcohol withdrawal can help you stay safe and comfortable. Following the end of your symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, you can begin behavioral therapy. Your treatment plan may include family counseling in addition to individual and group therapy.
Behavioral therapy for alcohol addiction can occur as inpatient care or outpatient treatment, depending on your needs. Recovery from alcohol addiction or excessive alcohol consumption can occur in a setting that works for you and makes you feel comfortable. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal is usually supervised with full-time medical care. The treatment of alcohol withdrawal can require medications along with monitoring.