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Article Summary

Women and Prescription Drug Abuse

A new data analysis finds alarming trends in prescription drug abuse. While overall illicit drug use is declining, the abuse of prescription drugs, particularly narcotic pain killers, remains disturbingly high. Data reveal that females are at particular risk for prescription drug abuse, with higher rates of abuse among teen girls, more emergency room visits among young women, and higher rates of treatment admissions for dependence on some prescription drugs among females.

This disturbing new trend runs counter to traditional drug use patterns, where males have typically exceeded females. When it comes to street drugs, use by males significantly exceeds use by females. Past year use of marijuana for males 12 and older is 13.1 percent, versus 7.9 percent for females. Past year cocaine use among males 12 and older is 3.0 percent, versus 1.6 percent for females. The traditional gender differences are reversed, however, when it comes to teen prescription drug abuse. Nearly one in ten (9.2 percent) teen girls report using a prescription drug to get high at least once in the past year, compared to one in 13 (7.5 percent) teen boys.


Further data show that abuse of prescription drugs is disproportionately creating significant health consequences for females. For emergency room visits involving prescription drug abuse, females were involved in 55 percent of the cases. This compares to females being involved in just 35 percent of emergency room visits where street drugs were involved. And more women are being admitted to treatment for dependence on sedatives and tranquilizers than men: 56 percent of those being treated for dependence on sedatives (which can include antidepressants like Remeron or Numbutal) and 53 percent of those being treated for dependence on tranquilizers (like Valium, Xanax or Haldol) are women. Among 12–17 year-olds, girls had higher rates of dependence or abuse involving prescription drugs (1.8 percent for girls and 1.1 percent for boys).

The apparent reversal in gender vulnerability for prescription abuse may be due to unique pressures faced by females. Whereas males typically tend to abuse drugs and alcohol for sensation seeking purposes, surveys indicate that females abuse drugs and alcohol to increase confidence, reduce tension, cope with problems, lose inhibitions, or to lose weight. These motivation factors, combined with easier access and less social stigma, make prescription drug abuse an unique threat for females of all ages.

John Walters, Director of National Drug Control Policy, said, "While destructive street drugs like meth and crack produce gruesome news images and headlines, prescription drug abuse has quietly become a major part of our Nation's addiction problem. Too many Americans, and increasingly, too many young women, simply do not know the addictive potential of these medicines. This is the kind of public health problem where awareness can save lives—and ignorance can cost lives."

Tips to limit Drug Abuse

In order to limit the relatively easy access to prescription drugs and to directly address some of the reasons why females, in particular, abuse them, individuals are encouraged to:

  • Address negative self esteem or body image issues
  • Never share medications or use them outside of a physician's care and supervision
  • Closely monitor and regulate the supply of prescription drugs in your home
  • Properly dispose of any unneeded or expired prescription drugs

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