While most people have an understanding that drug addiction impacts the health of anyone who is a drug user, the abuse of drugs impacts women very differently than it impacts men. Though some of the physical impacts of drug abuse will stay the same regardless of gender, women’s issues in recovery from addiction are unique to them for a variety of reasons.
How Addiction Affects Women Differently
Some of the differences in the way that drug abuse affects women are simply a matter of biology. Studies have shown that women may become addicted after using drugs for a shorter time period than men and from using lesser amounts of drugs than men typically use. The cravings women experience for drugs as well as their likelihood for relapse are greater than for men. Scientists suspect this could be related to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Additionally, women’s sexual hormones may make then more sensitive to drugs than are men.
Women, unlike men, will experience greater changes to their heart and blood vessels as a result of using drugs. Even though women who abuse alcohol will likely use less alcohol than their male counterparts throughout their lives, their risk for developing diseases that are cardiovascular in nature is still greater than that of men. For example, changes to the heart as a result of alcohol abuse include the weakening of the heart muscle itself, which may result not only in heart failure, but in death.
Additionally, women who drink both moderate and large amounts put themselves at a greater risk for developing such diseases as breast cancer and other cancers.
For both men and women, when you use certain drugs, you are at a greater risk for experiencing disorders such as anxiety attacks, depressive episodes and panic attacks.
In addition to the changes that occur in a woman’s heart as a result of using drugs, many will also experience changes and damage to the liver with alcohol abuse. When looking at women and men, it generally takes less time for a woman who is abusing alcohol to damage her liver and develop hepatitis related to repeated alcohol use. This type of hepatitis may result in failure of the liver or cirrhosis which can eventually lead to death.
Women may also have brain damage from overuse of alcohol, and this damage will usually occur sooner in a woman than a man. Signs that brain damage is occurring include changes in the size of the brain, manner in which the cells in the brain are functioning, and a significant reduction in the manner of mental functioning.
Environmental factors may also result in women having a greater propensity for drug use, especially if they are a victim of domestic violence. Also, changes to family life such as death of a child or spouse, a divorce or loss of child custody may trigger anyone to start using and abusing drugs.
Additional environmental factors include situations which impact women at a greater rate than men. This might include post-traumatic stress disorder which occurs as a result of physical and/or sexual abuse. Another important factor that is different for women than for men depends on how women will get treatment. Usually women are more likely than men to get help for an addiction by working with their family practitioner or a mental health provider. And the likelihood that a woman will seek treatment may be based upon how financially independent she is as well as whether or not she is pregnant, and whether she has child care.
Drug Abuse and Sexually Transmitted Disease
Often, the lifestyle of a woman who is addicted to drugs is a contributing factor that may make it more likely she will contract some type of sexually transmitted disease (STD). Some of the reasons a drug abuser is more likely to contract a STD are:
- Lifestyles of those who abuse drugs or alcohol seems to encourage having unprotected sex because their decision-making skills are impaired.
- Using alcohol and drugs often will decrease someone’s inhibitions and make it more likely that they will have multiple sexual partners.
- People who are addicts are more likely not to treat the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases.
- One of the characteristics of an addictive personality taking many risks. This may make an addict more likely to contract STDs.
- Many addicts may have low self-esteem. This means that they will be more likely to engage in unsafe sex with multiple partners.
- A drug or alcohol abuser who is being treated for an STD may not be able to follow through with the treatment plan due to the effects of their intoxication and the lifestyle which has become part of their addictive behavior.
There are a number of STDs, and some of them are treatable and may be cured. Others may have symptoms which can be treated but not cured, and some diseases can be deadly.
Chlamydia, for example, is a bacterial infection that can affect both the eyes and genitals but is treatable and curable with antibiotics. Gonorrhea is another bacterial infection which can damage internal organs but is curable with antibiotics. Syphilis is also caused by bacteria and is almost non-existent in the western world because the treatment with antibiotics has pretty much eliminated it.
Genital herpes is an infection caused by a virus that results in sores on the genitals. This viral infection is not curable, but it’s treatable. Genital warts, which are caused by the human papilloma virus, are another type of viral infection that may be treatable but will likely result in multiple episodes, like genital herpes. While there are treatments to remove the warts, these treatments won’t eradicate the virus that causes the warts.
Life threatening STDs include viral hepatitis A, B and C. These diseases may result in liver inflammation and can be deadly. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is also life-threatening because of its great impact on the way that the immune system functions.
Though there are various symptoms of STDs depending on the type of STD someone has, there are some common symptoms of STDs. The most common are:
- Pain during intercourse
- Burning during urination
- Discharge from the vagina
- Pain in the pelvis and bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Genital itching
- Swelling and tenderness of lymph nodes in the groin
- Pain in the abdomen
- Yellowing of the skin which is often a sign of jaundice
- Genital ulcerations
While the complications of having a sexually transmitted disease are great, the good news is that STDs can be avoided. The most important step for you to remember is that if you stop addictive behavior, it is less likely that you will acquire an STD. Additional factors to consider when seeking how to avoid contracting an STD are:
- Always use a condom, but keep in mind that condoms are not completely effective when eliminating someone’s risk for contracting an STD.
- Get tested regularly for STDs.
- Don’t have multiple partners.
- Don’t make decisions about intercourse when intoxicated.
- Get vaccinated to prevent hepatitis B.
There are treatments for many types of STDs. The biggest problem, especially if you are an addict, is that you may ignore the symptoms of STDs until you progress to the point that you have caused harm to the organs of the body. For example, chlamydia, if left untreated, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease. If this disease progresses, it can cause irreparable damage to the reproductive organs of a woman’s body.
Sexual Assault and Addiction
Even though addicts may be more promiscuous as a result of reduced inhibitions, they may also be at a greater risk for sexual assault. Part of the reason for this is that victims of sexual assault are often targeted because of the interpretation that they don’t have power. Someone who is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs is less likely to report their assault, thereby making them easy prey.
A drug or alcohol abuser may also be reluctant to report an assault which occurred when they were under the influence because there is a reduced likelihood they will be believed — especially if they are a known substance abuser or if law enforcement learns that they were under the influence when the assault occurred.
Statistics prove these concerns, too. According to the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey done by the Core Institute, University of Southern Illinois, 2003, “at least 80 percent of college students who were sexually assaulted were under the influence of alcohol.”
Specific Effect of Alcohol on a Woman’s Body
Though both alcohol and drug addiction have an impact on a woman’s body, alcohol abuse is especially concerning because of the statistics associated with it. Alcohol is one of the world’s primary causes of disability and death.
The World Health Organization has stated that using alcohol will increase your risk for diseases and may contribute to or cause such diseases as cancer, liver cirrhosis, diabetes, and heart disease. Women are at a disadvantage from men in that their organs are damaged at a greater rate than men’s when using alcohol for a shorter length of time. For instance, if you are a woman who has even two or three drinks each day, you will have a greater risk of health problems than a man who drinks the same amount.
Though research has revealed that a low consumption of alcohol (smaller than one drink a day) may help protect women at risk for heart disease, this protective factor doesn’t apply to very young women, women who aren’t at risk for heart disease, and women who drink excessively. In fact, women who drink excessively will be at a greater risk for heart disease and are more likely to die young from complications related to heart disease.
If a woman has over four drinks per day, she is likely to develop high blood pressure. A woman’s heart function will also decline more rapidly with a lower level of alcohol use throughout her life than will a man’s.
While the risk for heart disease will increase greatly for a woman who is drinking heavily, heavy alcohol use may also impact her fertility. Excessive alcohol use may cause a woman to have irregular periods that are also increasingly painful. Reproductive effects are also evident as excessive drinking makes miscarriage more likely and can interfere with fetal growth.
Research also shows that a woman past the reproductive age who is taking hormone replacement therapy may be at a greater risk of developing breast cancer if she consumes over fourteen drinks in a one-week period. And a study that was done across ethnic groups showed that a woman is at greater risker for cancer associated with endometriosis if she is post-menopausal and drinks two or more drinks per day.
A bone disease that is most often found in women, osteoporosis, has a greater rate of occurrence in women who drink excessively. If you are a woman who drinks excessively, you are more likely to harm your bones and decrease the levels of bone density.
Additionally, if you are a woman who repeatedly uses excessive amounts of alcohol, your alcohol use will impact the functioning of all of your bodily organs including the brain. Studies have shown that the impact of alcohol use on a woman’s brain is greater than the impact on a man’s brain. For example, a woman who excessively uses alcohol for the same amount of time as a man will have more abnormal brain tissue than will a man.
And women who use smaller amounts of alcohol than men will show more abnormal brain tissue than men.
Studies also show that women are at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than are men. Excessive use of alcohol, however, will increase memory loss for both men and women and will put both groups at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, women who drink excessively will be at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s than will men.
Physiological Impact of Drug Use on Women
Drugs that are injected appear to have the greatest impact on a woman’s menstrual cycle. These types of drugs, along with crack cocaine, can cause changes such as amenorrhea where a woman stops having a period altogether. Women who use opioids and heroin may also experience amenorrhea or have irregular periods. Women taking heroin may also experience a decrease in sexual desire, and it can take as long as one year for periods to return after they have stopped taking heroin.
The drug classification of methamphetamines seems to have a greater impact on women than it does on men. Studies have shown that if you are a woman who use methamphetamines, you are at a greater risk than a man of suffering from psychological effects. Some of the symptoms of psychological disturbances include the fear of losing bodily control and having disquieting thoughts. Other impacts that are greater among women than among men are losing appetite, clenching the jaw, and having a dry mouth.
Addiction and Women’s Health for Pregnant or Breastfeeding Women
Drug abuse is especially harmful when a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding. Not only can this impact the pregnant woman as well as the unborn child, but it can also harm the child after birth and for years to come. If you are abusing drugs while you are pregnant, you can suffer a number of complications including the risk of miscarriage, migraine headaches and high blood pressure, which can in turn impact the child. Additionally, the risk of having a baby that is stillborn is between two and three times greater for you if you smoke marijuana or tobacco, use illegal drugs or take prescription painkillers while you are pregnant.
Regular use of drugs during your pregnancy may result in you having a baby who becomes addicted to drugs as well. This means the baby will go through withdrawal once they are born. This condition, called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), can occur with the use of a variety of substances such as alcohol, caffeine, opioids and even sedatives that are prescribed. Numerous factors can impact the severity of the baby’s withdrawal symptoms including the type of drug used, the frequency of use and whether or not the baby was born at full term.
Drug abuse by a pregnant woman can impact the baby in other ways, too, including causing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), birth defects, premature birth, problems with learning and very low birth weight.
If you decide to breastfeed your baby, many of the substances you ingest will be passed through the breastmilk. That means that if you smoke pot, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or take drugs, those substances will be passed into your breast milk. While there is not definitive research that shows how children fed this tainted breast milk will be impacted in the long-term, it has been proven that teenagers using drugs as their brains are still developing have cognitive impairment. It then stands to reason that babies who are fed tainted breastmilk may also experience impaired cognitive development.
If you decide that you need to stop using drugs while you are pregnant, it is very important that you seek professional help. Attempts to withdraw on your own from highly addictive drugs or alcohol may not only be risky for you, but also for the unborn child. Additionally, it is possible for a pregnant woman to receive treatment for highly addictive opioid drugs prior to the birth of her child. Though it is quite possible that the child will need to be treated for withdrawal symptoms, it is much better if you are a drug user who is pregnant that you get treated for drug abuse while pregnant rather than to continue to use drugs. The impact of the drug use will be less for you and your unborn child if you are treated while pregnant rather than waiting until you give birth.
At 12 Keys, We Can Help
If you suspect that you or a loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol and need to get help, you should contact 12 Keys Rehab. Our focus is on real recovery, and we know everyone is different — especially when it comes to what will work to overcome an addiction. Therefore, we use a holistic approach that treats the whole person, and we make it specifically tailored to you. Additionally, you will be able to enjoy the surrounding natural beauty and comfortable accommodations.
Our model is multi-disciplinary and treats addiction, mental and behavioral health, as well as trauma and social problems at the same time. Recovery is overseen by a large professional staff with appropriate certifications and licenses. However, we have a low client-to-therapist ratio, so you always have the support you need in your recovery.
Contact us today and be on your way to a healthier you.