Opiate Addiction in Women: Research & Statistics

Woman sitting by the sea with opioid addiction

Contributor: Staff Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Opiate addiction has become such a big problem in the United States that it is now considered an epidemic, causing 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin use in 2015 alone [1].

Opiates are a class of drugs that vary in their form, ranging from prescription pain relievers (such as oxycodone, morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl) to heroin. No matter the type, these drugs are highly addictive and can become so in as little as two weeks [2].

As with every medical and mental health concern, there are gender differences when it comes to opiate addiction. Research shows that women develop addiction faster and that the consequences of addiction appear sooner and are more devastating for them [3].

Various studies have found triggers unique to women that might lead to them being more vulnerable to opiate addiction.

One article notes, “an estimated 50 million women in America suffer from some form of chronic pain…and women are more likely to seek treatment for those problems than men [2].” This chronic pain is often treated with prescription painkillers, which are prescribed at higher dosages and for more extended periods of time for women than for men [2].

The Start of an Opiate Addiction

For many, the addiction to opiates begins by taking these prescription medications, with users either continuing use when it is no longer medically necessary or switching to heroin. Four out of five new heroin users began using prescription painkillers [1].

In fact, a 2014 study found that 94% of respondents in treatment for opioid addiction started using heroin because opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain [1].”

Mental health issues can also lead to women developing an opiate addiction. In comparing the two, women with addiction to opiates have shown higher rates of depression and anxiety than men who are also addicted [4].

People are more likely to play around with the opiates used to treat these illnesses, self-medicating by increasing dosage to increase feelings of reward or relief.

While statistics on active opiate addiction in women are difficult to pin down, statistics on the consequences are, sadly, not.

Woman on the beach worried about Opiate Addiction in Women

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reported that 48,000 women died of prescription pain reliever overdoses between 1999 and 2010.

This 400% increase is far higher than that of men, whose prescription pain reliever overdoses have increased by 237% in the same timeframe [1].

Babies exposed to opiates in pregnancy have signs of withdrawal in the neonatal period. Furthermore, “these mothers, their babies, and the healthcare workers looking after them are at increased risk of blood-borne infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and C and HIV [5].

Additionally, from 2010 to 2013, heroin overdoses among women have tripled, increasing from .4 to 1.2 per 100,000 people [1].

These numbers tell us a lot about how rapidly incidences of opiate addiction in women are increasing. Clinicians and healthcare workers should be aware of the unique risk factors women have to prevent these numbers from rising and losing more valuable lives.


[1] Opioid addiction: 2016 facts and figures. American Society of Addiction Medicine, retrieved on 04 October 2017 from https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf.
[2] Shaddox, C. (2017). Women at higher risk for opioid addiction, face treatment barriers. Retrieved on 04 October 2017 from http://c-hit.org/2017/04/02/women-at-higher-risk-for-opioid-addiction-face-treatment-barriers/.
[3] Raketic, D. et al. (2013). Women and addiction (alcohol and opiates): comparative analysis of psychosocial aspects. Special Hospital for Addiction, 141: 648-652.
[4] Opiate addiction among women (2017). Retrieved on 04 October 2017 from http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/opiate-addiction-among-women/.
[5] Fajemirokun-Oduyedi, O. et al. (2006). Pregnancy outcome in women who use opiates. European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 126: 170-175.

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on November 6, 2017
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 12, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.