By Martha McLaughlin

Opioid addiction touches every segment of American society. No one is immune, and there are a lot of different ways people become addicted or respond to treatment based on varying characteristics and backgrounds.

Young woman taking pillBut research shows women have been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis. Let’s take a closer look at why and how they’re being affected.

1. Women are prescribed opioid painkillers more often.
Many paths lead to addiction, but a common initiating event is being prescribed an opioid drug to treat acute or chronic pain. Most attention has been on the use of medications to treat chronic conditions, but the focus is now also turning to postsurgical pain, with a recent report finding much higher rates of addiction to opioids after surgery than was previously understood.1

A number of gender differences were highlighted in the report, which noted that in 2016, women were prescribed 30 percent more opioid medications than men. Women aged 40-59 received almost twice as much as men of the same age.

2. Women are more likely to become persistent users of opioids after surgery.

This same report found that 9.5 percent of patients who hadn’t been taking opioids before their surgery were still taking the drugs three to six months after their operation.1 Again, gender differences were seen, with women more likely to become persistent users.

When surgeries across both genders were analyzed, 40 percent more women than men fell into the persistent user category. The authors note that this may be due to pain becoming chronic and to a higher risk for dependence based on hormonal, metabolic and other biological differences. Although persistent use isn’t equivalent to addiction, it may indicate it or make it more likely.

3. Opioid-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits are increasing rapidly among women.

A report by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) found that opioid-related hospitalization rates rose among all sex and age groups between 2005 and 2014.2 However, inpatient stays grew more quickly for female patients, increasing 75 percent versus just 55 percent for males. In three-fourths of American states, more women than men were hospitalized for opioid-related conditions.

4. Women struggling with addiction often experience physical and sexual abuse and exploitation.

Sexual activity and drug abuse are linked in complicated ways. Sometimes women willingly trade sexual favors for drugs or drug money, sometimes people purposely get women hooked on drugs in order to control them, and sometimes men take advantage of women whose addiction makes them more vulnerable.

National Public Radio tells the story of Kristin, who reports that a single woman on the streets is more likely to be robbed, beaten or sold fake drugs than a woman traveling with a man, but that men willing to take on the task often pressure the women for sex or take it by force.3 When people with opioid addiction were asked about sexual violence, 11 percent of men and 41 percent of women said they’d been forced into sexual encounters. Victims often don’t report attacks, because they fear contact with law enforcement or because the details are hazy due to the drug effects. Kristin explains that the assaults and associated fear become just another reason to turn to opioids to relieve emotional pain.

5. Women face unique barriers to treatment.

The Addiction Treatment Forum notes that women confront societal, personal and program-related barriers.4 They’re more likely to have primary responsibility for child care, which makes treatment more logistically challenging and raises custody-related fears. They’re less likely to know where to go for help, and they get referred to treatment less often by doctors, employers or the legal system. Women are also more likely to have drug-using partners that discourage them from getting treatment.

Opioid addiction is a serious condition, but a treatable one. The best outcomes are seen when each patient’s particular characteristics, desires and circumstances are addressed. Just as each patient’s path toward and through addiction is unique, the path out is personal as well.

The good news is, you don’t have to figure it out alone. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, give Skywood a call. Our admissions team is dedicated to helping you understand your treatment options so you can find the recovery path that’s right for you.


1United States for Non-Dependence: An Analysis of the Impact of Opioid Overprescribing in America.” Pacira Pharmaceuticals, September 26, 2017.

2 Weiss, Audrey J., et al. “Patient Characteristics of Opioid-Related Inpatient Stays and Emergency Department Visits Nationally and by State, 2014.” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, June 20, 2017.

3 Bebinger, Martha. “Women With Opioid Addiction Live With Daily Fear of Assault, Rape.” National Public Radio, September 21, 2017.

4Seeking and Getting Substance Abuse Treatment: Barriers Women Face.” Addiction Treatment Forum, April 21, 2013.