• alcoholism;
  • female;
  • primary care;
  • gender effects

OBJECTIVE: To describe how alcohol use disorders (AUDs) affect women, focusing on gender-specific implications for primary care physicians (PCPs).

DESIGN: An overview of literature from 1966 to 2000 identified by a medline, PsychINFO and HealthSTAR/Ovid Healthstar database search using key words “women,”“alcohol” and “alcoholism.”

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Although the prevalence of AUDs is greater in men than in women, women with AUDs are more likely to seek help, but less likely to be identified by their physicians. Psychiatric comorbidities (especially depression and eating disorders) are more common in women with AUDs than in men with AUDs. A past history of sexual and/or physical abuse places a woman at increased risk for AUDs. Women have a greater sensitivity to alcohol, have an accelerated progression from alcohol toxicity, and have increased mortality at lower levels of consumption compared to men. Women and men who are light-to-moderate drinkers have lower coronary artery disease mortality than do abstainers or heavy drinkers. Risk of breast cancer is increased in women who drink ≥1 drinks daily. Common barriers to treatment include: fear of abandonment by partner; fear of loss of children; and financial dependency. Brief interventions have been shown to be effective in reduction of alcohol consumption in women with at-risk drinking. It is unclear if women-only treatment programs improve outcomes.

CONCLUSION: PCPs should be alert to gender-specific differences for women with AUDs.