Many of us have heard the term “meth mouth”, often used to describe the oral decay that many drug abusers experience. The term was coined by dental professionals to describe the extensive damage caused by meth in particular. According to a study that was published in Addiction, those that have drug abuse problems suffer from more tooth decay and periodontal disease than the general population. They are also less likely to receive dental care. There are several reasons why drug users find themselves with more dental problems than others, and we’ll explore how drug abuse may contribute, as well as the effects that different types of drugs have on our oral health.
One contributing factor towards poor dental hygiene is the type of lifestyle that many addicts lead. Those who struggle with drug abuse typically have high sugar diets, poor nutrition and some even suffer from malnutrition. Poor hygiene is also a problem typically found among those who abuse drugs or alcohol. One user on Reddit said, “I still can’t believe how much I let myself go when I was using. I don’t know how anyone could stand to be around me. I didn’t care about showering let alone flossing! I was too busy getting/trying to get high!” While not every drug abuser finds themselves totally neglecting their personal care, many do neglect their own hygiene to a degree. Depending on the drug of choice there can be varying consequences. Here are just some of the negative effects different drugs can have on a person’s oral health.
Perhaps the best known for causing dental problems, meth can cause severe tooth decay very quickly. Those with “meth mouth” often have broken, discolored, rotting teeth. The drug itself is highly acidic and erodes tooth enamel away causing cavities. It also causes dry mouth which by itself can cause dental problems. Saliva is necessary to reduce bacteria in the mouth, neutralize acids and help to re-mineralize tooth enamel. Without enough saliva, bacteria grow and acids strip teeth of their enamel. Meth also causes teeth grinding and jaw clenching which can exacerbate decay already in progress.
When cocaine and saliva mix, the resulting solution is extremely acidic. When users rub cocaine over their gums, the excess acid in their mouth erodes enamel and exposes the layer underneath (the dentin) to bacteria. Rubbing it on the gums also causes ulcers which may lead to further infection. Similar to meth, cocaine can cause dry mouth and grinding. When ingested frequently cocaine also depletes the body of vitamin C and calcium, essential for healthy teeth and bones.
One of the most well-known effects of tobacco use is stained and yellow teeth. This can happen in a relatively short amount of time. Smoking increases bacterial plaque, infecting gums and causing gum disease, and because smoking decreases oxygen in the bloodstream, infected gums do not properly heal. When left untreated gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults and can cause loss of the jawbone tissue that surrounds the teeth. Smoking also causes oral cancer, as well as other cancer types. Smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco is also known to cause different cancers of the mouth, as well as causing gum disease. Most smokeless tobacco contains sand or grit which can cause teeth to wear down and erode.
Heroin increases a user’s cravings for sugary foods and also causes dry mouth. The combination creates an acidic environment in the mouth and allows bacteria to breed. Heroin users are more likely to have oral fungus and oral viral infections, which can be serious. It also causes tooth grinding, which can increase the risk of tooth decay and wearing away at enamel.
Ecstasy causes dry mouth for an extended period of time, for as long as two days after use. The higher the dose used the more severe the dry mouth is and the longer it will last. Along with dry mouth, ecstasy causes tooth grinding and jaw clenching, causing jaw pain and for the teeth to wear down.
Major Health Issues Caused By Drug Abuse & Poor Dental Hygiene
Aside from cosmetic issues, dental problems can cause other more severe health issues as well. Poor oral hygiene can lead to:
- Cardiovascular disease: The bacteria from gum disease travel in the bloodstream and to the arteries of the heart which can cause atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Plaque then develops on the inner arterial walls and can restrict blood flow through the body. The same bacteria can also cause the inner lining of the heart to become infected.
- Respiratory infections: Bacteria from the mouth travel to the lungs causing pneumonia and other infections.
- Complications with diabetes: Gum disease can make it harder to keep blood sugar levels regulated and may worsen symptoms of diabetes.
While tooth decay may be easy to see and feel, gum disease can be painless and therefore easier to miss. Some symptoms include: bleeding while brushing or flossing, swollen or red gums, persistent bad breath or a foul taste in the mouth, gums that recede, loose teeth, pus surrounding the teeth or gums, and changes in the way teeth fit together when biting down.
To prevent tooth and gum problems, dentists recommend the following:
- Brush at least twice a day, once in the morning and before bed at night. Floss daily as well.
- Decrease your intake of sugary foods.
- Avoid soda and other carbonated drinks which can erode tooth enamel.
- Quit smoking. Seek help if needed.
- Visit your dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings. If you don’t have dental insurance many dentists will provide you with free x-rays and a first exam. They also offer flexible payment plans for necessary treatment.
The best way to deal with the physical effects of drug abuse is to seek professional help. If dependence on drugs or alcohol is causing you to neglect your personal hygiene, please allow us to help you get on the path to better health.
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