Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse in Women

Women abuse prescription drugs for a variety of reasons, from boredom to stress. But what does prescription drug addiction look like in women?

Rates of death due to opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999 and continue to rise each year. Over the past two decades, the United States witnessed an undeniable surge in the number of individuals either using or abusing prescription drugs.

Do You Have an Addiction to Prescription Drugs?

woman taking prescription drugs

Prescription drug abuse is a dangerous problem today, infiltrating towns and cities throughout the nation.

With the consumer culture approach to medicine today, doctors prescribe medications to address symptoms before ever addressing the root of the problem.

Those prescribed these medications become dependent and potentially addicted, but often don’t realize it until the supply cuts off. However, by that time they are past the point of return, especially those who are addicted to these medications.

Is there one single factor that contributes to the widespread misuse of prescription drugs in America? Do women experience higher rates of prescription drug abuse and addiction than men do? How do prescription drugs affect women differently than they affect men?

Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction Statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the year 2009 saw the most alarming spike in prescription drug use thus far; that year, more than 7 million Americans reported the past-month nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

Nonmedical use includes any use of medication outside the confines of the prescription or using medication that isn’t prescribed to you at all.

Again in 2009 alone, 2.2 million Americans used prescription painkillers for the first time, more than a quarter of the total who misused prescription drugs in general. Nonmedical use of prescription drugs sees rates highest in young adults ages 18 to 25 years old.

Prescription opioids are clearly the most popular option for prescription drug abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts a yearly survey to monitor drug use and mental health among Americans.

In 2015 they ranked the most misused drugs and the top ten included three of the four categories of prescription drugs. The reported amounts of people abusing these prescription drugs in the past month included:

  • Pain killers: 3,775,000 individuals
  • Tranquilizers: 1,874,000 individuals
  • Stimulants: 1,653,000 individuals
  • Sedatives: 446,000 individuals

Crossover exists between each, with 6,365,000 total people reporting misuse of prescription drugs in general. Despite the crossover, there clearly exists a statistically significant portion of people abusing prescription drugs.

Of the four types of commonly abused prescription drugs, painkillers (or opioids) are the most popular. Prescription drug abuse statistics from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, report that 91 Americans die every day from a prescription opioid overdose. Again, death rates due to opioids have quadrupled since 1999.

The statistics on prescription drug abuse and death rates show the highest concentration of overdoses in people ages 25 to 54 years. Men are still more likely to die, but prescription drug overdose rates in women are steadily rising and the gap between the sexes continues to close.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted research that revealed shocking rates of overdose and death due to prescription opioids. In 2014, 1,700 young adults 18 to 24 died of prescription drug overdose. For each of those deaths there were an additional 119 emergency room visits and 22 treatment admissions.

Prescription drug abuse statistics from the CDC and NIDA prove the existence of an epidemic in America. Regardless of who is to blame, the nation must continue addressing the soaring rates of prescription drug abuse in women and men, as well as the shocking rates of death due to overdose.

Prescription Drug Dependence vs. Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction

What is the difference between prescription drug dependence and prescription drug abuse or addiction? Where is the line between the two? How can you tell if someone is simply dependent upon their prescription medication or whether they’re actually abusing or addicted to it?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse clearly outlines the difference between dependence and addiction. Different parts of the brain are responsible for dependence and addiction; dependence relies on the thalamus and brainstem while addiction targets the reward pathway.

Prescription Drug Dependence in Women

Dependence on prescription drugs develops after any extended use of pills, regardless of the type. After consistently introducing a chemical into the body, brain chemistry somewhat rewires into expecting the introduction of that chemical in particular increments.

When a dose is missed or the supply cuts off entirely, the brain isn’t used to functioning without that flow of prescription drugs. It has adapted to the presence of that prescription drug. Their absence induces withdrawal symptoms which vary depending on the type of drugs used.

Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction in Women

Just because a woman is dependent on prescription drugs doesn’t mean she is addicted to them. The difference between prescription drug dependence and abuse or addiction is the compulsive use of that drug.

A woman who is addicted to prescription drugs uses them compulsively with little thought behind the act of doing it. She will use the drugs whether or not she experiences withdrawal symptoms at the time. She also continues using prescription drugs regardless of the consequences she experiences, such as missing work, failing to take care of her family, or skipping social obligations.

When a woman has a prescription drug dependence, she will move through the withdrawal period and move on with her life. But when a woman is addicted to prescription drugs, that day of moving on with her life may never come.

Prescription Drugs Effects and the Types Women Abuse

Which substances are included underneath this umbrella term of prescription drugs?

As mentioned earlier, prescription drugs fall into one of four categories:

  • Pain Relievers: Used to reduce and relieve pain, especially in patients who experience chronic pain or just underwent a surgical procedure.
  • Stimulants: Used to manage dopamine levels in individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), helping them function at a more stable level.
  • Tranquilizers: Used to treat individuals with severe anxiety and panic disorders.
  • Sedatives: Used for individuals with sleep disorders or other difficulties with sleeping.

Each umbrella category consists of many different prescription drugs with effects that vary slightly, but all within the same category function similarly. These drugs are prescribed for a variety of reasons but many of them cause dependence in people who use them for extended periods of time. The greater the amount prescribed or used, the higher the tolerance and more significant the dependence.

Prescription painkillers are also referred to as opioids, so named for their synthetic replication of opiates. Prescription opioids include drugs such as:

  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone (brand names include OxyContin)
  • Hydrocodone (brand names include Vicodin)

When the user takes enough, the prescription painkillers effects reduce and relieve pain in the body as well as induce a state of euphoria. They cause drowsiness and encourage relaxation, especially when taken in higher doses.

Unless someone experiences chronic pain from an injury or other diagnosis, people are most commonly prescribed pain relievers after a surgical procedure. If not given specific tapering instructions from their doctor, some find themselves dependent upon the medication even after a few days.

Prescription stimulants affect dopamine and norepinephrine receptors, used to help individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) remain present and focused. The two main types of stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines (brand names include Adderall and Dexedrine)
  • Methylphenidate (brand names include Ritalin and Concerta)

But prescription stimulant effects in those without ADHD are significantly opposite. They are essentially a synthetic, legal version of methamphetamines. Prescription stimulant effects include:

  • Heightened sense of awareness
  • Cognitive enhancement
  • Increased energy levels
  • Decreased appetite

Stimulants are popular with students on college campuses looking to cram homework or study sessions. They help users focus on the task directly in front of them for an extended period of time, whether it’s homework or cleaning the house.

The decreased appetite caused by the effects of prescription stimulants often leads to weight loss. This is a welcomed side effect for many women who abuse prescription stimulants.

Tranquilizers are prescribed to those with severe anxiety or panic disorders. They suppress and calm the central nervous system, helping people navigate their day less inflicted by the effects of anxiety. Prescription tranquilizers include:

  • Diazepam (brand names include Valium)
  • Alprazolam (brand names include Xanax)
  • Clonazepam (brand names include Klonopin)

The effects of prescription tranquilizers are significant, especially when taken in higher doses. The term “barring out” refers to getting high on prescription tranquilizers, particularly Xanax.

Prescription tranquilizer effects include:

  • Relaxation or sedation
  • Calmness
  • Euphoria

Those addicted to prescription tranquilizers enjoy the effects of absolute calm experienced while high on the drugs. Tolerance to tranquilizers develops quickly and the withdrawal symptoms are severe, much like with painkillers.

Prescription sedatives are used for patients with sleep disorders or other sleeping problems, such as insomnia or irregular sleep patterns. Common types of prescription sedatives include:

  • Zolpidem (brand names include Ambien)
  • Lorazepam (brand names include Ativan)
  • Eszopiclone (brand names include Lunesta)

The calming effects of prescription sedatives are similar to those of tranquilizers, but also induce extreme drowsiness in the user. Since they are used to treat sleep disorders, prescription sedative effects often cause the person using them to fall asleep. For this reason, they are incredibly dangerous to use while driving.

What Causes Prescription Drug Addiction in Women?

There is no way to determine whether or not someone will become an addict.

There isn’t a single switch to flip or a specific gene or event that takes place which causes drug addiction in women, men, or children. Research has yet to pin down a singular cause of drug addiction in individuals.

This is particular of siblings who grow up in the same family with the same genes and upbringing; some become drug addicts as a product of their situation while others rise above it and choose a different path for their life.

However, prescription drug addiction has a slightly different story to it. Doctors and psychiatrists are often quick to diagnose and prescribe drugs to treat symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issue. When these medical professionals apply a medication-assisted band-aid to the results of the problem, the problem itself is sometimes never addressed.

People who would have never been introduced to drugs now find themselves at the hands of prescription painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants. These prescription drugs have the potential to be just as dangerous as street drugs when not properly monitored.

Women who are addicted to prescription drugs often continue to fulfill their duties whether in the office or at home, all while existing on a prescription cocktail. Although abuse and death rates are still lower for women, again, the gap in statistics for men and women continues to close.

Effects of Prescription Drug Use in Women

How to Know if Someone is Using or Addicted to Prescription Drugs

It is a scary realization to find out that a loved woman in your life is addicted to prescription drugs.

What are the signs to look for when trying to determine whether she is actually addicted or simply dependent?

Drug addicts use greater amounts of drugs than they originally intend to when they sit down and get high. Whether they’re the type of addict who will use until the entire supply is gone, whether they simply take a few more pills than they’re supposed to, or whether they fill another prescription after swearing off when the last one was out, addicts tend to overshoot the mark. Every time.

When a woman is addicted to prescription drugs, she’ll often swear off of them, insisting she’ll stop once this bottle is gone. However, if she’s a real drug addict, she’ll fill the next prescription with little hesitation. If she can’t receive any refills from her current doctor, she may seek the assistance of another doctor who will prescribe what she needs.

Addicts often spend a lot of time either finding the money to get their drugs, actually getting their drugs, using their drugs, or recovering from the effects their drugs produce. If a woman is addicted to prescription drugs, much of her time will revolve around the drugs.

Cravings are a significant sign of drug addiction. Someone who is addicted to drugs finds themselves craving greater amounts whether they are sober or already high. These cravings often need to be fulfilled at any cost, whether monetary, physical, or psychological, at the expense of either themselves or those they love.

Women addicted to prescription drugs often find their abilities to perform either at work, at home, or in school are impacted by their drug use. That could mean missing work or performing poorly on the job, sleeping in and not waking up the kids for school or not making lunches, or skipping classes and dodging homework assignments.

Whatever she must manage, she finds herself unable to as a direct result of her drug use.

Prescription drug addiction creates divides between families and friends of the addict. The addict’s behavior is often more than friends and family can handle. Commonly addicts steal, lie, and cheat in order to get what they need: their next fix.

They will say or do anything to keep those they love at bay, to keep them in the dark, or to get what they need in order to get high. And when these relationships begin to fray, the addict continues using drugs.

Drugs become the most important thing in a drug addict’s life, before family, friends, hobbies, work, or school. It doesn’t matter the engagement; if it gets in between them and their drugs, they will choose the drugs. This means missing birthday parties, holidays, school events, office parties, or anything else that might get in the way of them getting high.

Driving while high on prescriptions is a common practice, often because people don’t consider themselves high. If it’s a prescription, they should be just fine to operate a vehicle, right? If a woman’s prescription drug addiction repeatedly puts her in harmful situations and she continues to use and end up in those types of situations, she may need help.

Prescription drug addiction can cause a myriad of health issues on its own, but when added onto pre-existing conditions, addiction can amplify the problem. If her use is either causing health problems or a woman continues to use despite the health problems, she is likely addicted to prescription drugs.

When someone is addicted to drugs, they need to use greater amounts to achieve the desired effect. This is referred to as developing a tolerance. Having a high tolerance is dangerous because the human body can only process so much at a time.

When a woman introduces substantial amounts of prescription drugs into her body, she is risking the chance that she may not be able to process everything and potentially overdose.

Does she experience relief when she finally is able to use her drugs?

Women who are addicted to prescription drugs find that they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drugs for some period of time. Depending on the amount used and how often they were used, some women may start the withdrawal process as soon as a few hours after their last dose.

Withdrawal symptoms can range from minor things like hand tremors and sweats to seizures, stroke, and death. They should not be taken lightly. If someone you know is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, you may need to take them to the emergency room or find them a drug detox in order to safely get through the withdrawal process.

women prescription drug addiction

Looking for the First Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction in Women

Is there a way to stem a budding drug addiction? Can you stop an addict from becoming addicted before they start?

Sometimes you can, if you know what to look for. You might notice early signs of prescription drug abuse or addiction in the woman in your life. What prescription drug addiction signs should you look for?

Keep an eye out for the signs listed above. If you notice any of them taking place in the life of the woman you’re concerned about, consider talking to her. By opening communication in a non-threatening manner, you may be able to put a lid on the problem and get help before it becomes disastrous.

However, some women are “functional addicts” and you have no idea they have a problem until it’s too late. In cases such as these, seeking prescription drug addiction treatment for women may be the only option from the time you find out what’s happening. There are a variety of options for addiction treatment, from inpatient rehab to outpatient programs and drug counseling.

Just because a woman is addicted to prescription drugs doesn’t mean it’s the end; with a loving, concerned intervention and the proper care, she can avoid becoming another statistic in the harrowing prescription drug epidemic.