Gender Differences in Drug Abuse Risks and Treatment
Over the past few years NIDA has made a major research
commitment to identifying and understanding differences in the ways
that women and men-or girls and boys-are first exposed to drugs, in
their risks of abuse and addiction, and in the effectiveness of drug
Understanding these differences, and incorporating that understanding
into drug abuse prevention and treatment,
can reduce the dangers and improve outcomes. NIDA-supported research
has shown that gender differences play a role from the very earliest
opportunity to use drugs, that women and men tend to abuse different
drugs, that the effects of drugs are different for women and men, and
that some approaches to treatment
are more successful for women than for men.
Are Women Less Likely Than Men to Abuse Drugs?
Men are more likely than women to have opportunities
to use drugs, but men and women given an opportunity to use drugs for
the first time are equally likely to do so and to progress from initial
use to addiction. However, women and men appear to differ in their vulnerability
to some drugs. Both are equally likely to become addicted to or dependent
on cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, tobacco, and inhalants. Women are
more likely than men to become addicted to or dependent on sedatives
and drugs designed to treat anxiety or sleeplessness, and less likely
than men to abuse alcohol and marijuana. There are also differences
between men and women who seek treatment for drug abuse. Women in treatment
programs are less likely than men to have graduated from high school
and to be employed and are more likely than men to have other health
problems, to have sought previous drug treatment, to have attempted
suicide, and to have suffered sexual abuse or other physical abuse.
Are There Gender Differences In the Biological Effects of Drugs?
Animal research and human studies have revealed that
males and females may differ in their biological responses to drugs.
In studies of animals given the opportunity to self-administer intravenous
doses of cocaine or heroin, females began self-administration sooner
than males and administered larger amounts of the drugs. Women may be
more sensitive than men to the cardiovascular effects of cocaine. In
human studies, women and men given equal doses of cocaine experienced
the same cardiovascular response despite the fact that blood concentrations
of cocaine did not rise as high in women as in men. In studies involving
long-term cocaine users, women and men showed similar impairment in
tests of concentration, memory, and academic achievement following sustained
abstinence, even though women in the study had substantially greater
exposure to cocaine. Women cocaine users also were less likely than
men to exhibit abnormalities of blood flow in the brain's frontal lobes.
These findings suggest a sex-related mechanism that may protect women
from some of the damage cocaine inflicts on the brain.
Does Gender Play a Role in Nicotine Addiction?
Women and men are equally likely to become addicted to
nicotine, yet women typically smoke cigarettes with lower nicotine content
than those smoked by men, smoke fewer cigarettes per day, and inhale
less deeply than men. Overall, however, women are less successful than
men in quitting smoking and have higher relapse rates after they do
quit. Treatment involving nicotine replacement therapy-nicotine gum
or patch-works better for men than for women.
What Are Women's Risks for HIV/AIDS?
Research suggests that there are sex-related differences
in some fundamental aspects of the HIV/AIDS disease process. For example,
an HIV-infected woman with half the amount of virus circulating in the
bloodstream as an infected man will progress to a diagnosis of AIDS
in about the same time. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, among cases that progress to a diagnosis of AIDS, drug
abuse accounts for a greater percentage of cases among women than among
men. Nearly half (47 percent) of all women diagnosed with AIDS are injecting
drug users (IDUs), whereas among men, IDUs account for 32 percent of
AIDS cases. An additional 19 percent of women, compared with 2 percent
of men, with AIDS report having sex with users who inject drugs. In
all, drug abuse is nearly twice as likely to be directly or indirectly
associated with AIDS in women (66 percent) as in men (34 percent).
For More Information
NIDA's gender-related research is discussed in Drug Addiction Research
and the Health of Women, available on NIDA's home page on the World
Wide Web: www.drugabuse.gov or from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol
and Drug Information (NCADI), P.O. Box 2345, Rockville, MD 20847-2345,