Used and Abused

Richard N. Waldman, MD

By Richard N. Waldman, MD

President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

An estimated 20 million Americans—including nearly 10% of nonpregnant women ages 15–44 and 5% of pregnant women—reported illegal drug use in 2008. Substance use and abuse are increasing among women and affect women of all backgrounds, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, or race.

Marijuana is, by far, the most commonly used illegal drug, taken by roughly 75% of illicit drug users. Recreational use of prescription drugs is on the rise, especially among women, with more than six million people reporting non-medical use of prescription drugs such as opiates, tranquilizers, and stimulants. Use of other street drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants, also remained high.


Illegal drug use in women increases the risk of physical and mental health issues, such as reproductive problems, liver disease, stroke, certain cancers, STDs, and depression. Because they can cross the placenta to a fetus, illegal drugs are especially dangerous to use during pregnancy. Illegal drug use during pregnancy can lead to preterm birth, birth defects, still birth, and newborn-related problems, including addiction at the time of birth, breathing difficulties, irritability, and bonding troubles.

Substance abuse and dependence are treatable medical conditions, not a sign of weakness, bad character, or lack of will power. Many women are reluctant to admit that they are having problems with substance abuse, fearing repercussions at work or with the police, social isolation, or loss of their children. Others may not be aware of the extent of their dependence on drugs or may be in denial. But if you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, it is important to seek help. Signs of dependence may include:

* A need for increased amounts of the drug to receive the desired effect
* Experiencing mental and physical withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, nausea, vomiting, and tremors
* A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use
* Giving up important social, work, or recreational activities because of substance use

Remember that casual drug use can quickly turn into dependence. It is best to avoid using illegal substances, including prescription medications that were not prescribed to you. If you are pregnant, that goes double. Pregnant women should also inform their doctor of any medications that they take so they can be sure they are safe to use during pregnancy. Your doctor can be an excellent resource for advice and educational information on illegal and prescription drug abuse and can refer you to health professionals and support groups that can help.

September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. For more information, go to ?

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