Opioid Addiction: Men vs. Women

PR Newswire PR Newswire • December 10, 2019

There’s no question that the opioid epidemic is running rampant and has to be stopped. There are many layers to this crisis; many of which leave people unable to fully comprehend its seriousness. In order to eradicate opioid misuse and the stigma surrounding drug addiction, we must do our part to raise awareness and present facts about how people become addicted, why they become addicted, and how addiction impacts them mentally, emotionally and physically.

Opioid addiction can happen to anyone—teens, college students, pregnant women, husbands and grandparents—and doesn’t impact everyone the same. In fact, research has shown the myriad ways that opioid addiction differentiates between men and women.

The Differences in Opioid Addiction Between Men and Women

Opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, codeine and heroin affect men and women’s bodies differently. The levels of certain brain chemicals usually differ between the sexes, and hormones can cause significant changes as well.

  • Dependence: It’s more common for women to develop physical dependence to opioids than men. When comparing similar types of surgeries, 40% more women than men use opioid painkillers for long durations after surgery. This persistent use affects 8% in women ages 45–54 compared to 8.5% in men the same age. This means that women have a higher risk of going from overuse of painkillers to true opioid addiction.
  • Cravings: Women typically have strong opioid cravings. These feelings are often much more intense than those experienced by men. This difference can accelerate the path to substance addiction from doctor-prescribed treatment. It also makes it more difficult for women to stop opioid abuse or seek help.
  • Relapse: Women are more likely than men to experience a relapse when trying to leave substance addiction behind. Men have a lower risk of relapse and also tend to break free from opioids more quickly than women.
  • Overdose: Men are at a higher risk than women of developing addiction to illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Also, a higher number of men overdose annually on opioids than women do. However, women are actually more likely than men to have an overdose because of how these addictive substances interact with their bodies.

These serious statistics continually change as the opioid epidemic grows in force. For example, even though there are more men who abuse opioids than women, there is an alarming trend of opioid use disorder (OUD) in women. The number of men who fatally overdosed between 1999 and 2016 increased by 312%; in comparison, women saw an increase in opioid-related deaths of almost 600% (596%). In other words, far more women are overdosing from OUD than ever before.

Why Women Have Increased Opioid Addiction Risks

Why are women at a higher risk of dependence, addiction, relapse and overdose with opioids than men? A major reason is simply because they receive more prescriptions for these drugs. In fact, women are twice as likely to receive a prescription for opioid painkillers than men. They also generally take pain medications for longer durations. Hydrocodone and oxycodone are highly addictive, and puts women at a serious risk of developing OUD.

Women are also more likely to suffer chronic pain disorders than men, including migraine headaches, fibromyalgia and arthritis. In addition, many women receive a prescription for an opioid painkiller following a Cesarean section, a major surgery that men biologically will never experience.

Some research suggests the women experience pain more intensely than men. Also, female sex hormones such as progesterone can intensify the effects of opioids on the body. For example, a woman’s brain reacts to dopamine more quickly and more intensely, creating increased feelings of euphoria that can be hard to resist.

The cycle of addiction can start rather innocently in women who have suffered physical or emotional abuse in the past. These women may normally feel depressed. If a doctor gives them an opioid prescription for chronic pain, it doesn’t take long to notice that in addition to pain relief, they also experience a dopamine-related high that eases their emotional suffering. Even after the physical pain goes away, women may look for ways to obtain more oxycodone or fentanyl to soothe the emotional pain.

What Addiction Differences Mean for Doctors, Patients and Family Members


Doctors should re-evaluate the way that they prescribe opioids and what they consider “normal” treatment periods for women. Understanding that women are more susceptible to opioid dependence means that physicians should be especially careful with follow-up visits and addiction warning signs after surgeries and childbirth.


Patients can take steps to protect themselves from opioid dependence by opting for alternative treatment wherever possible. In cases of long-term pain, many experts recommend steering clear of opioid pain medications entirely, even if it means putting up with some discomfort.

Family Members

Avoid making comparisons between the patient and other people who have successfully overcome opioid use disorder. A big part of giving women the help they need to succeed is by providing much-needed emotional support. In fact, guilt can have the opposite effect on many women, driving them further into addiction and secrecy. Understand that men who use opioids may crave the drugs far less than women. This is due to hormonal differences, not a personality failing.

Women trying to recover from opioid addiction need to keep in mind:

  • Cravings are caused by brain chemicals, not moral weakness.
  • Medications such as naloxone can help reduce cravings.
  • The support of friends and families members makes a huge difference.
  • Emotional trauma requires emotional treatment, not painkillers.
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