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Women, Alcohol, and Drugs: The Risks Are Higher

As a woman, your body is much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and more easily damaged than a man’s body. Because women have less water in their body than men, alcohol doesn't dilute as much and more of it gets absorbed into the blood. Women also tend to be smaller. That’s why women suffer greater physical damage and often become more intoxicated than men when they drink identical amounts of alcohol.

In addition, women's bodies break down alcohol differently than men's bodies. As women age, they become even less efficient at metabolizing alcohol. So the drink they barely noticed at age 30 may pack the wallop of two or three drinks when they’re 60.

Risky behavior

Intoxication from alcohol or other drugs alters your thinking and impairs your judgment, which leads to engaging in activities you might not do if you were sober, such as driving or engaging in unplanned sex. It can put women at risk for driving under the influence, sexually transmitted diseases, or unplanned pregnancy.

It also impairs your coordination, making some simple tasks, especially driving, dangerous.

Studies suggest that drinking raises the risk for several types of cancer, including throat, esophagus, liver, and possibly bladder. Even moderate drinking raises a woman’s risk for breast cancer. This has led to speculation about a relationship between alcohol, breast cancer, and estrogen. Because this relationship is complicated, talk with your health care provider about your personal risk.

Drug abuse: Addiction comes faster

As with alcohol, there is evidence that women suffer greater physical and social consequences from drug abuse than men. Women also frequently become dependent on prescription drugs, such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and pain pills. Large doses or long-term use can lead to physical and psychological addiction. Talk with your health care provider about the safe use of prescription drugs.

Street drugs and needles are a particularly dangerous combination, especially if the needles are shared. Besides the risks from overdoses, intravenous drug users have to worry about serious infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS 

You have a problem with alcohol or other drugs if:

  • No matter how many promises you make to yourself about quitting or cutting down, you keep using alcohol or other drugs.

  • You’re uncomfortable when alcohol or other drugs are not available.

  • You regret things you’ve said or done when under the influence.

  • When faced with a problem, your immediate reaction is to drink or use other drugs.

  • Drinking or using other drugs changes your personality–from shy to outgoing, or vice versa.

  • It takes more alcohol or other drugs than it used to to get the same effect.

  • You remember how last night began, but not how it ended.

  • You’ve arrived late or missed work or school because of your substance abusing behavior.

  • You’ve been arrested for driving under the influence.

  • You’re angry or alarmed when others mention your substance abusing behavior.

  • Your hands shake in the morning, or you feel you can’t make it through the rest of the day without drugs or a drink.

  • You feel alone, scared, miserable, and depressed.

If you want to drink alcohol, limit your consumption to no more than one drink per day. One drink means one 5-ounce glass of wine, one 12-ounce beer, or one 1-ounce shot of hard liquor. If you are pregnant, don’t drink at all. Mothers who drink while they’re pregnant can seriously damage their unborn child. Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading known causes of intellectual disability.

Alcohol and drug abuse can put you at risk for devastating social and physical consequences. Alcohol and other substances are linked to half of the domestic violence, rape, and homicide cases.

Unfortunately, women are often reluctant to seek treatment for substance abuse. But the problem almost certainly won't go away on its own. If you're dependent on any substance, get help now. If you know a woman who has a drug problem, encourage her to get help. Talk to your health care provider, a substance abuse counselor, or your spiritual advisor.