Prescription Drug Addiction in Women

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Although men are more likely to use illicit drugs than women, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder [1]. Prescription drug misuse occurs when someone uses drugs in ways other than what a doctor instructs. With prescription drug use disorder on the rise among women, it’s important to understand the possible causes and warning signs so that those who are struggling can receive proper treatment right away.

Prescriptions Used by Women

Doctors may prescribe certain drugs, such as opioids, to women at a higher rate than men. Prescription opioids are highly addictive and commonly used to help manage pain.

Some studies indicate that women may feel pain more intensely and be more prone to chronic pain than men [1]. This might contribute to the high rates of opioid use among women. Women may also have a higher chance of taking prescription opioids without a prescription from a doctor to help cope with pain or to self-treat symptoms of anxiety [1].

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Women are more likely to seek treatment for misuse of depressants like anti-anxiety medication and sleeping aids [1]. According to studies, emergency rooms see women for misuse of antidepressants and benzodiazepines at a higher rate than men [1].

Because women are at a greater risk for conditions like anxiety and insomnia, doctors may prescribe them anti-anxiety medications and sleeping aids at a higher rate. With greater access to prescription medication, the risk of developing a substance use disorder increases.

The Role of Co-Occurring Disorders in Women

Mental health disorders and substance use disorders often go hand in hand. In their lifetime, women are at a higher risk for mood disorders and anxiety disorders compared with men. Women also have a greater risk for eating disorders, making up 90% of cases of anorexia and bulimia [2].

Left untreated, these disorders can lead to substance use disorders like prescription drug use disorder, whether prescribed by a doctor or through self-medication. Among women seeking treatment for substance use disorders like prescription drug use disorder, rates of physical and sexual abuse are high, with many reporting symptoms of PTSD [2].

Prescription drug use disorder can occur at the same time as other substance use disorders. For example, those who have alcohol use disorder are 18 times more likely to use prescription drugs for nonmedical use when compared with people who do not drink alcohol [3].

Although men consume alcohol at a higher rate than women, the gender gap has decreased over time. Women are also more likely to use alcohol to cope with stress and other negative emotions, which could put them at risk for developing an addiction [3].

The Dangers of Prescription Drug Use

Even when used correctly, many prescription medications come with the risk of developing an addiction. That risk greatly increases when using prescriptions in ways other than what a doctor instructs. Having a substance use disorder means that you are mentally and physically dependent on the drug, leading to some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop.

Woman Wondering If She Has A Prescription Drug Use AddictionWithdrawal is one of the main reasons why stopping prescription drug use on one’s own can be so difficult. Physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sweating, and shaking are common. Depending on the drug, depression, exhaustion, and insomnia can also occur when trying to quit.

A substance use disorder that is left untreated is dangerous, putting a person at risk for legal and financial trouble, accidents or injuries due to impaired thinking, changes in mood, and health problems. Women who have a substance use disorder are at a higher risk for death, whether it’s by overdose, suicide, or an accident [1].

Signs of Prescription Drug Use Disorder in Women

It is important to understand the signs of prescription drug use disorder so that treatment can be started right away. Prescription drug use disorder can sometimes be difficult to detect. However, signs of prescription drug use disorder in women can include:

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in personality
  • Inappropriate anger
  • Lying about drug use

If you or someone you love is struggling with prescription drug use disorder, you are not alone, and help is available.


[1] NIDA. (2021, April 13). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

[2] Greenfield, S. F., Back, S. E., Lawson, K., & Brady, K. T. (2010). Substance abuse in women. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(2), 339–355.

[3] NIDA. (2008, March 1). Alcohol Abuse Makes Prescription Drug Abuse More Likely. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center bannerAt Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and girls who are living with mental health conditions such as substance use disorders and eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.

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 May 5, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 5, 2021
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.