When Women Become Addicted to Cocaine

By Cynthia Sass  Per the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 1.5 million people use cocaine. More than 600,000 of those people are women. Although more men are using and addicted to cocaine than women, the number of women is rapidly increasing. Additionally, studies have shown that women get addicted faster, suffer more cognitive impairment and have poorer treatment outcomes than men. Seeking help at a women’s rehabilitation center may help address the unique issues that women who are addicted to cocaine face.

Cocaine Affects Women Differently

Biology plays a role in how cocaine affects women. Women process drugs differently than men because hormones, fertility, and menstrual cycles all influence how cocaine is absorbed, processed and expelled from the body. Current research indicates that women experience more of a high and have an increased chance of becoming addicted than men, after the first use. Estrogen is one hormone that has been getting attention over the years as one scientists believe is responsible for the difference in addiction rates. Changes in estrogen levels appear to increase dopamine release in the brain, magnifying feelings of euphoria. Research shows that when estrogen levels are highest, at the peak in a woman’s cycle, pleasure sensations are also high. Additionally, peak cycle can last up to 10 days, which means for 10 days a month, women can get much higher than men from the same, or less, amount of cocaine. Since the 1980s, scientists have identified and explored a phenomenon called the “telescoping effect.” The telescoping effect relates to an accelerated timeline from initial use to addiction in women. Estrogen/estradiol levels are thought to play a critical role in the process. However, cocaine is not the only drug to have this effect on women. Alcohol, heroin and methamphetamine use in women also often results in the telescoping effect. Cocaine affects women’s brains differently, too. Studies have shown that women have an extra dopamine receptor and higher dopamine transporter levels. That fact, coupled with women’s higher estradiol levels during fertility, means that hormones significantly influence dopamine pathways, causing higher highs from cocaine and other drugs. It also means that women can sustain more substantial damage to the brain in less time than what is typically seen in men. As a result, women who are addicted to cocaine tend to have slower mental reactions, and more confusion, irritability, anger and anxiety. Researchers found that these issues lead to higher patterns of psychiatric, medical, employment and relationship problems for women, and more difficulty with treatment for cocaine addiction.


Because cocaine use and addiction affect women so differently, it is important to examine how treatment might also be affected. Participation in programs specifically designed for women at a women’s treatment center may be helpful. Studies show that withdrawal tends to be more intense for women. Women also tend to have more comorbidity, such as secondary conditions like depression or anxiety, along with addiction to cocaine. Unfortunately, few programs exist that provide gender-sensitive treatment protocols. Differences in scope and severity of addiction for women, as opposed to men, are noted in biological, social, and cognitive areas and each should be addressed in treatment. Current research shows a correlation between improved outcomes and gender-sensitive treatment programs. More treatment protocols that focus on critical issues relating to women and addiction are needed. In some communities, local women’s treatment centers already offer gender-sensitive treatment programs and can help you or a loved one seeking support. Sources: Sex-Related Differences in Self-Reported Neurocognitive Impairment among High-Risk Cocaine Users in Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program Gender differences in clinical outcomes for cocaine dependence: Randomized clinical trials of behavioral therapy and disulfiram Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use

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