The Opioid Crisis and Women: What You Need to Know

It’s no secret that the opioid crisis is rampant in the United States. Research initiatives across the nation are working to address the underbelly of this epidemic as well as trying to implement effective treatments for opioid use disorders (OUD). However, many feel these same initiatives overlook growing data on sex and gender differences in OUD.

An article published in Women’s Health Research at Yale (WHRY) by Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D. and Jill Becker, Ph.D. detailed the laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological evidence showing the need to endorse and encourage the research of sex and gender differences in the opioid epidemic. The authors noted that compared to their male counterparts, women with opioid addiction have a higher likelihood of experiencing early trauma and receiving a diagnosis of depression. The article also suggests that these women suffer greater functional impairment, ultimately affecting their work life and ability to find housing. Furthermore, their children can be negatively impacted, due to the role of family caretaker that is common for many women.  

Factors Affecting Women

There are many factors at play when it comes to the increase in opioid use in women; however, research has been continually suggesting that trauma, mental health, and parenting/pregnancy are some of the biggest risk factors for women and the increase of opioid use disorders.


According to The National Library of Medicine and The National Institutes of Health (2016) trauma and substance abuse is often cyclical in nature, stating, “Studies of interpersonal trauma and substance abuse in women have shown a strong association between the two conditions. The nature of the association appears to be complex, in that a history of interpersonal trauma increases the risk for substance abuse, and substance abuse increases the risk for interpersonal trauma.” Additionally, women who are victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of substance use (National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA). The likelihood of being sexually abused while engaging in drug use is also substantially higher for women than it is for men. A 2015 New York University study found that 41% of women and 11% of men said they were forced to have sex while using drugs. 

Mental Health

A person who is struggling with their mental health can be more vulnerable to substance misuse, especially women. Divorce, loss of child custody, or the death of a partner or child can trigger women’s substance use disorders or other mental health disorders (NIDA). The Office of Women’s Health (OWH) also reports that serious psychological and emotional stressors may increase a woman’s risk of developing an opioid use disorder. And although men are, overall, more likely to be exposed to trauma in their lives, women are more often exposed to chronic high impact trauma such as childhood sexual violence, physical abuse, and neglect (The National Library of Medicine and The National Institutes of Health, 2013).  

Pregnancy and Parenting

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that the number of pregnant women who were using opioids at the time of delivery more than quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, causing serious concern for healthcare professionals. Most drugs, including opioids, can harm an unborn baby—and women who are pregnant and engage in substance abuse will experience adverse effects on both their bodies and the fetus. In particular, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, when a woman uses drugs regularly during pregnancy, the baby can go through withdrawal after birth; a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Symptoms include seizures, tremors, high-pitched crying, and feeding difficulties. In the U.S., the rate of NAS drastically increased from 2000 to 2013 (CDC).

Pregnant women who are dealing with substance use disorders need help and treatment, but often do not know where to turn as only 22% of facilities that offer substance use treatment in the U.S. have specialized programs for pregnant or postpartum women, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, 2017). For pregnant women with opioid use disorder, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends medication-assisted treatment. These treatments reduce both the risk of NAS and the likelihood of women relapsing after giving birth. But with limited programs providing necessary drug treatment for pregnant women, the cycle of opioid abuse typically continues. More national, state, and provider assistance and research are needed to prevent and treat opioid use disorder among pregnant women.

Treatment For Addiction

Seeking help when our loved one is in the throes of addiction is paramount to surviving this process. Living with a loved one who has a substance use problem can feel isolating, but you are not alone. At Daylight Recovery Services, we are here to help. If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder or addiction, get help now. Substance use disorders and addiction are treatable and recovery is possible. Contact one of our knowledgeable recovery experts today at 1-833-2DAYLIGHT to get the help you need. 

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela