Alcoholism and Alcohol Addiction in Women

How do alcoholism and alcohol addiction affect women in particular?

Are there differences between alcoholism in men and women? How does alcohol affect a woman’s body in particular? Learn more about how alcoholism affects women nationwide. Alcoholism tears through the lives of millions of families in America every year.

Do You Have an Addiction to Alcohol?

Usually when you think of alcoholics, though, you think of someone banging on the bar at 2:01 AM, demanding another drink after last call. Or you think of a bum beneath a bridge drinking malt liquor from a bottle in a brown paper bag.

But alcoholism does not discriminate. It doesn’t care whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the soccer coach for a youth soccer team. Whether you’re a high school dropout or an Ivy League graduate.

It affects people from every walk of life, whether they are young or old, gay or straight, employed or unemployed. It doesn’t consider race, creed, or religion. It doesn’t care whether you’re female or male.

But alcohol does affect women’s bodies differently than it does men’s bodies. What about alcoholism in women specifically, then?

Alcohol Use Facts in the United States

Firstly, a better picture of the prevalence of alcohol use and abuse may be helpful. How many people in the United States consume alcohol on a regular basis?

According to studies conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), of all the adults ages 18 and older in the United States:

  • 4 percent of people drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime
  • percent drank in the past year
  • 0 percent drank in the past month

Clearly large amounts of the adult population in the United States consume alcohol. Many are able to drink only a handful of times a year without a second thought. People like this can take alcohol or leave it; when they aren’t drinking they aren’t thinking about it.

Then there is the part of the population who consumes alcohol regularly, on a consistent monthly, weekly, or daily basis.

There is a significant difference between those who have drank in the past month versus those who have engaged in binge drinking in the past month.

Binge drinking is the consumption of 4 or more drinks for women or 5 or more drinks for men in a two hour period. Drinking like this often creates hazardous or dangerous situations for the drinker or those around them.

26.9 percent of individuals surveyed engaged in binge drinking in the past month according to alcoholism facts collected by the NIAAA. Although it tends to create or instigate harmful situations, binge drinking does not necessarily imply an explicit drinking problem.

The NIAAA continues through the progression of alcoholism to collect further statistics:

  • 0 percent engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month
  • 1 million adults ages 18 and older in the US have an alcohol use disorder (AUD)

A significant portion of the population struggles with their alcohol use, both men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, regardless of race.

These NIAAA alcoholism facts cover both women and men in the U.S. But what about women alone? How significant is alcohol use among women in the United States?

Statistics show that, on average, women consume alcohol less frequently than men do. For example, the NIAAA discovered that 34 percent of women reported consuming at least 12 drinks in the past year, while 56 percent of men reported the same thing.

Additionally, 10 percent of women and 22 percent of men consume, on average, at least two drinks per day. The NIAAA’s research also showed that men are more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol compared to women.

Still, their research also showed:

  • 3 million women have an AUD (or 4.2 percent of women ages 18 and older)
  • 325,000 girls ages 12 to 17 have an AUD (or 2.7 percent of this age range)

Though the percentages when compared to the entire population may be small, this does not negate the serious experience for those 5.6 million women living with an AUD. What exactly is alcohol use disorder, though, and how does it differ from alcoholism?

What Is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?


Alcoholism is a non-medical term. Everyday people use the words alcoholic or alcoholism to describe anyone who drinks too much. Popularized by programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, there is no hard and fast definition of an alcoholic; the term is used rather loosely.


On the other hand, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical diagnosis for problem drinking. There are criteria outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) used to diagnose heavy drinkers with a drinking problem.

Ultimately the difference is that there is no way to be medically diagnosed as an alcoholic. Instead, an AUD is an official medical diagnosis received by a doctor or physician when the team of medical professionals realize the prevalence of an alcoholic’s drinking.

Pressures on Women and How They Use Alcohol to Cope

Are women under more pressure to drink than their male counterparts? Or does the excessive amount of tasks the average woman deals with on a daily basis encourage some to drink to cope? Although society has progressed immensely from the way gender roles are portrayed, there is still immense stress placed upon women.

Many women work full-time jobs today in addition to coming home from work and performing household tasks. From getting dinner ready to getting lunches ready for the next day, cleaning and doing laundry to helping the kids with homework or getting them to bed, women have a lot on their plates.

The statistics do show lower rates of drinking among women when compared to men. This could be due to the attention they must funnel into to other duties they have throughout the day. Whatever the reason, there is a lesser amount of women drinking but the way alcohol processes differently in a woman’s body likely influences the impact of their alcohol consumption.

Differences Between The Way Men’s and Women’s Bodies Process Alcohol

When it comes down to it, there is a biological difference between the way alcohol processes in a woman’s body compared to a man’s body. Their bodies absorb and metabolize the alcohol differently due to the lesser amount of water in their bodies compared to men who have a similar weight.

Because of this, women reach a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level quicker than men do. This means that women become intoxicated quicker than their male counterparts do. This is also the reason that drinking levels specify fewer drinks for women than men when considering binge drinking or BAC levels.

However, women’s bodies seem to remove alcohol from their systems more rapidly than men’s bodies do. This is likely due to the higher liver volume present in women’s bodies.

Women Metabolize Alcohol Faster – What Does This Mean?

Since women metabolize alcohol faster, obviously this implies they will get drunker quicker. It takes less for a woman to reach the same level of intoxication as a man. But this is not always a hard-and-fast rule.

Something to notice, though, when wondering whether a woman has a drinking problem is their tolerance. If you see a woman who can not only hold her alcohol but seems to need a significant amount in order to achieve a state of intoxication, she may have a drinking problem.

Are you wondering whether your drinking or the drinking of someone you love has become a problem? Usually it is noticeable after a certain point but some are able to catch themselves early on the path. Not every woman needs to go to the same depths that some others did; there is yet time to stop if you catch yourself early enough and respond appropriately.

Quiz: Signs of Alcoholism

Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

Are you wondering whether your drinking is a problem?

One of the easiest ways to determine whether you have a drinking problem is to look at the criteria outlined in the fifth edition of the DSM-V. Though they are the medical outline for diagnosing someone with an alcohol use disorder, they are a great baseline for determining problem alcohol use.

You may be wondering what makes a person an alcoholic. Look at it as a quick quiz on the signs of alcoholism and honestly ask yourself if any of these 11 criteria apply to you:

  1. Drinking more or for longer than intended
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop but being unable to
  3. Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking episodes
  4. Experiencing a craving for alcohol when not drinking
  5. Drinking or being sick from drinking interferes with daily responsibilities
  6. Continuing to drink despite problems with friends or family
  7. Giving up on once-enjoyable activities in order to drink
  8. Ending up in harmful or dangerous situations as a direct result of drinking
  9. Continuing to drink despite it affecting mental or physical health
  10. Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Do you experience any of those signs? According to the DSM-V there are different levels of severity for an alcohol use disorder. Count up how many criteria apply to you and determine where your alcohol dependence level is at:

  • 2 to 3 symptoms imply a Mild Alcohol Use Disorder
  • 4 to 5 symptoms imply a Moderate Alcohol Use Disorder
  • 6 or more symptoms imply a Severe Alcohol Use Disorder

The Impact of a Woman’s Alcohol Use on Her Body

The long term effects of alcohol use have on a person’s body are now widely known. From the external circumstances such as ability to act as a productive member of society to its impacts on the brain and the liver, it is impossible to deny that alcohol puts the body through a beating.

Since women metabolize and process alcohol differently than men do, it seems obvious they may experience some differences in the long-term effects of drinking. Many alcoholic women report less severe alcohol use than their male counterparts but the damage can still be done.

Does the faster rate at which they metabolize alcohol imply a faster decline or more imminent chance of harmful results? How does alcoholism display itself in long term effects on the body?

How Does Alcohol Use and Alcoholism Affect a Woman’s Brain?

Results from MRI testing have shown that women may be at a higher risk for brain damage related to long term effects of alcohol use. Areas that affect brain functioning turned out to be significantly smaller in alcoholic women compared to both alcoholic men and women without any problem alcohol use.

What Are the Effects of Alcohol Use and Alcoholism on a Woman’s Liver?

Women develop liver problems such as alcohol-induced liver disease over a much shorter period of time while consuming less alcohol than alcoholic men do. Additionally, women are at a greater risk for alcoholic hepatitis as well as death due to cirrhosis of the liver.

Little data on human studies exists surrounding the cause or causes of women’s livers being unable to withstand the same beating that men’s livers do, especially considering the larger liver size seen in women. Animal studies have shown that estrogen, the female hormone, may have something to do with alcohol’s effect on the livers of alcoholic women.

Does Alcohol Use or Alcoholism Cause Breast Cancer in Women?

While there is no single “cause” of breast cancer, women who report moderate to heavy alcohol consumption show higher risks for developing breast cancer. Data revealed that women who consume no more than one drink per day do not see a higher risk for breast cancer. Therefore, only women who drink heavily and consume alcohol for long periods of time have this increased risk.

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How a Mom’s Alcoholism Affects Her Family

Not only does a woman’s drinking affect her own body but it affects the lives of those around her. If she is a mom and her drinking is heavy enough, it is likely her children either know about it or have caught on that something is off about mom.

Alcohol often causes people to be distant as they are focused more on their next drink than those around them. While they may not understand exactly what is going on, children are deceivingly aware of what’s taking place around them.

Many adult children of alcoholics relate experiences recalling their mother drunk when picking them up from school or when they got home after walking back from the bus stop. There are moms who never helped their children with homework or had dinner ready at dinnertime.

There are many women who are functioning alcoholics and able to hide their drinking from their families. They have everything put together on the outside including lunches made for the next day and children tucked into bed every night.

Regardless of the type of alcoholic she is, whether a functioning alcoholic or not, a mother’s drinking impacts her family whether she realizes it or not. If she is functioning and can provide significant attention while intoxicated, imagine what she could provide were she sober.

5 Ways Women Can Recover From Alcoholism

Alcoholism, even at its most severe, does not have to be the end of the road; there is a way out of the seemingly hopeless state. It takes determination, dedication, and hard work but any woman struggling with a drinking problem has the ability to get sober and live a new life.

There are many ways women can get through alcohol withdrawal and recover from alcoholism. There is no “right way” to get sober; as long as the drinker stays sober one day at a time. The following are 5 ways women can recover from alcoholism:

Women’s alcohol detox helps women struggling with severe alcohol dependence. When you are used to ingesting a large amount of a substances, particularly alcohol or drugs, your body becomes used to the constant supply.

If you suddenly cut that supply off and your body is heavily dependent enough, you will experience withdrawal symptoms. These range from minor hand tremors and sweating to full seizures and internal organs losing function.

For those who are the latter type of alcoholic, a women’s alcohol detox facility can be a helpful start. Doctors and nurses help separate your body from the alcohol in a medically-supervised environment. Usually through the help of medication assisted treatment they manage the withdrawal symptoms to keep your discomfort to a minimum.

Women’s inpatient alcohol rehab usually takes place on a 30-, 60-, or 90-day basis. During inpatient you remain in an overnight facility and attend intensive treatment programming during the day. A rehabilitation team often consisting of a nurse, a psychiatrist, and a therapist or drug and alcohol counselor work with you throughout your entire stay.

Alcoholics who have a difficult time staying sober on their own will benefit from a “time-out” from the real world. During your stay in a women’s inpatient alcohol rehab, you learn coping skills and relapse prevention methods to help keep you from the next drink once you’re let go from the center.

Inpatient alcohol rehab is not an option for everyone. Especially for those women with a family or a career, the best option is an intensive outpatient program (IOP) at a drug and alcohol treatment center.

Intensive outpatient programs offer similar intensive programming available in an inpatient alcohol rehab but keep treatment offered on an outpatient basis. If you have responsibilities that require a less time-intensive program, an intensive outpatient program may help you find recovery.

Twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are a free resource for alcoholics seeking sobriety. They demand nothing of you but a desire to stop drinking and a willingness to try something new.

Twelve step programs are based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a path to a new way of life free from the bondage of alcohol and drugs. Twelve step programs aren’t for everyone; they are a spiritually-based program. Though not religious, some are not able to separate the two and find themselves feeling abrasive towards anonymous programs.

If you do not feel antagonistic towards a twelve step program and lack the funds necessary for alcohol rehab or alcohol treatment, try out a twelve step meeting to see what they’re about.

Those who are unable to tackle the spiritual aspect of the program may find solace in a secular recovery program like SMART Recovery or Secular Organizations for Sobriety. They are similar to AA in their new design for living but approach recovery in a more individualized fashion.

Similar to anonymous programs, secular recovery programs do not mix well with everyone. To find out the best option for yourself between a twelve step program or a secular recovery program, try attending meetings at both. Don’t just go for a week, though; instead, try going a few times to get a feel for the meeting and those who attend.

How Can Women Find the Alcohol Treatment They Need?

If you are concerned about your drinking, you can talk with your doctor or get in touch with a counselor at an alcoholism treatment facility. Addressing problem drinking early can help to keep it from becoming a more significant problem in the future.

Alcoholism doesn’t have to be fatal in your case; as long as you are still here there is still hope for you. Try out various options from alcohol rehab or alcohol treatment if they are available to you. Insurance often covers alcohol treatment to some extent, giving you that option if you have insurance.

Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and plenty of others can also help you find the assistance you need. Regardless of the avenue you select to get sober, stick with it. Through a combination of hard work, dedication, practice, and learning new behaviors, you have the opportunity to discover a life beyond your wildest dreams.

Women do recover from alcoholism and they return as a better version of themselves. Give yourself the opportunity to recover, too.