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Women and Alcohol Use: Statistics, Effects, and Treatment

4 min read · 8 sections
Alcohol is a commonly misused substance that can have harmful effects on the body. It can sometimes impact women differently than men. Alcohol can potentially influence the brain, liver, heart, reproductive system, pregnancy, and increase the risk of certain cancers. Women who drink alcohol are also at greater risk for experiencing negative social effects. This article covers how alcohol may uniquely impact women, the potential causes of alcoholism in women, circumstances in which women should completely avoid alcohol, and more.
What you will learn:
How alcohol impacts women
The potential causes of alcohol use disorder in women
When women should avoid alcohol
Women-specific treatment for alcohol use disorder

Health Effects of Alcohol Misuse on Women

Alcohol has the potential to affect women’s physical and mental health in a variety of ways. Alcohol misuse in women can lead several health issues, including:1-4

  • Brain function abnormalities. Women experience shrinking brain tissue, declining brain function, and brain damage faster than men as a result of alcohol use. Female teenagers who binge drink are more likely to experience memory problems compared to male teens who binge drink or female teens who do not binge drink. Additionally, heavy drinking in female teens affects parts of the brain associated with memory and making decisions.
  • Liver disease: Women are at greater risk of developing alcohol-associated liver diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis than men.
  • Heart problems: Damage to the heart muscle, heart disease, and high blood pressure can occur faster even if women consume less alcohol.
  • Infertility: Chronic use of alcohol may lead to irregular menstrual cycles and ovulation patterns, reduce fertility, and lead to an earlier onset of menopause.
  • Pregnancy complications: Women who drink while pregnant are at risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which involves birth defects, behavioral issues, and intellectual disabilities. It can also raise the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Cancer: Alcohol has been linked to many types of cancer that affects multiple organs, including the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, and liver. Women who drink are also more likely to develop breast cancer, and the risk increases with regular alcohol consumption.
  • Increased risk of blackouts: Women black out more easily than men as a result of alcohol.
  • Mental health disorders: Women are more likely to develop mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression as a result of alcohol use.
  • Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic (it eliminates water from the body), and since women already have less water in their bodies compared to men (on average), alcohol can be more concentrated in female bodies. This can increase dehydration, hangover symptoms such as headaches and muscle cramps, and worsen potential long-term health effects of chronic alcohol use.

Alcohol and Breast Cancer

As previously mentioned, alcohol use increases the risk of breast cancer, a disease that affects more than 2 million women worldwide each year. In the United States alone, there are nearly 500,000 new cases of breast cancer reported each year.6 While there are many factors that contribute to an individual’s risk of developing the disease—things that are out of a woman’s control, such as her age and genetics—alcohol consumption is one factor that women can control.5 Research indicates that even 10 to 15 grams (that’s less than 1 oz.) of alcohol each day is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. In fact, studies suggest that a 10-gram increase in alcohol consumption (1 standard drink generally contains 14 grams of alcohol) each day increased the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women by 5% and postmenopausal women by 9%.6

Not surprisingly, compiled data from 118 studies, indicates that an increased risk of breast cancer goes up with alcohol consumption. For example, light drinkers have slightly more than a 1-fold increased risk of breast cancer compared to non drinkers. With heavy drinkers, on the other hand, the risk increases 1.6-fold.

Social Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Women

Alcohol misuse also has the potential to create harmful social effects. Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking, has been associated with women being at greater risk for experiencing sexual assault or other types of violence.1,8 Additionally, since alcohol affects coordination, attention, and judgment, it also increases the risk of car crashes or other accidents.9 In the United States, there are nearly 40 deaths associated with alcohol-related car crashes daily.9 Alcohol misuse can also contribute to job loss and relationship issues.3,10

Statistics on Alcohol Use in Women

Statistics reveal recent trends in women’s alcohol consumption patterns and include:1

  • Approximately 13% of adult women engage in binge drinking.
  • Approximately 18% of women between the ages of 18 and 44 binge drink.
  • Among high school students in 2019, more females drank alcohol (32%) than males (26%). More females engaged in binge drinking (15%) than males (13%).
  • Among pregnant women, 10% drank alcohol, and 4.5% engaged in binge drinking.
  • In 2020, 9% of women overall had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and 17% of women between the ages of 18 and 25 had an AUD.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction in Women

Obviously, not all women who consume alcohol are vulnerable to becoming addicted to alcohol. However, there are a number of risk factors that can occur throughout a woman’s lifetime that may put her at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder or problematic drinking patterns. Some of these may include.11 

  • A family history of alcohol use disorder. Studies indicate that genetics play a major role in the development of an alcohol use disorder.
  • Pressure from a spouse, partner, or peer who drinks heavily. Research indicates that adolescent females are more strongly influenced by peer drinking and that “group exposure” contributes significantly to problem drinking among this population. Additionally, there is a greater likelihood of young adult and middle-aged women to drink heavily if their significant other drinks heavily.
  • Depression. One study found that female problem drinkers were 12% more likely than women in the general population to receive a diagnosis of depression. Additionally, studies have consistently confirmed the link between depression and alcohol use disorder. Another study discovered that depression preceded alcohol misuse in women in 66% of the co-occurring depression and alcohol use disorder cases they examined.
  • Reactions to stress and coping capabilities. Though it’s difficult to link a stress response to an increased risk of alcohol use disorder in women, studies suggest that there might be a link between a woman’s response to a stressful or traumatic event—such as past sexual or physical abuse, a death in the family, divorce, miscarriage, or hysterectomy—and alcohol misuse.
  • Other substance use. Research suggests that women who use other substances are at a greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. For example, one study, which examined women in treatment, found that 82% were likely to be smokers compared to 34% of their age-matched counterparts, who did not have an alcohol use disorder. Additionally, women who are problem drinkers are significantly more likely to misuse prescribed and illicit psychoactive substances.

Signs of Problem Alcohol Use

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have a problem with alcohol, there are some signs. These include the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD) as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Warning signs associated with alcohol misuse include:12

  • Being unable to fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or school because of drinking.
  • Using alcohol more frequently or in greater amounts than intended.
  • Being unable to stop drinking or control alcohol intake despite repeated attempts to do so.
  • Having strong cravings for alcohol.
  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, consuming, or recovering from alcohol.
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused by or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  • Giving up or cutting back on the number of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use.
  • Regularly using alcohol in dangerous situations, such as while driving.
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite the knowledge of having persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problems that are likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol use.
  • Experiencing tolerance, meaning it takes more alcohol to achieve the same desired effect or the same amount no longer produces the desired effect.
  • Going through withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking or attempt to cut back.

Alcohol Use Among Young Women

Recent data shows that 31% of girls ages 12 to 20 drank alcohol in 2021; 26% of boys in the same age group reported drinking alcohol in 2021. Why are more girls than boys drinking alcohol? Evidence suggests that anxiety and depression among adolescents—particularly young women—increased. Additionally, research indicates that girls with high levels of anxiety are more likely than boys to use alcohol to cope and to do so at a younger age.13

When Should Women Avoid Drinking?

Women who are pregnant or those taking medications that shouldn’t be combined with alcohol should avoid drinking. Women managing a medical condition that can be made worse by drinking and those recovering from an alcohol use disorder or who have struggled with problem drinking in the past, should avoid alcohol completely. Additionally, women under the age of 21, anyone who experiences facial flushing or dizziness when drinking alcohol, and individuals planning to drive or operate machinery should not drink alcohol.14

Alcohol Rehab for Women

Treatment programs that focus on women’s unique needs do exist. These programs consider biological, economical, and environmental differences—all of which can influence a woman’s substance use, whether treatment is sought, and the environment in which it is obtained. Some of the unique factors that may affect how, where, and if a woman seeks treatment may include:15,16

  • Financial independence.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Child care needs.
  • Stigma.
  • Parenting.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Sexual trauma and victimization.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • Housing.
  • Social services.

The most effective treatment addresses all the needs of the individual. If you or someone you love struggle with alcohol misuse or addiction, call American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to speak to one of our compassionate and knowledgeable admissions navigators, who can answer your questions, explain your options, and help you get started on your journey to recovery.

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