Substance abuse impacts our bodies in many ways — none of them positive. In addition to poorly affecting the liver, heart, lungs and skin, oral health can suffer severely as a consequence of heavy drug use.
There are a thousand reasons to avoid drug use, but knowing what drugs do to your teeth should be a strong deterrent for anyone considering it. For active addicts, it’s important to get help now and begin the recovery process to prevent further damage to teeth and gums.
Addicts less likely to seek dental health care
The simplest reason that many drug users suffer from poor oral health is simply that they are less likely to seek out dental health care, such as routine cleanings. Many addicts don’t have money to pay for dental exams due to their expensive drug habits, or are unable to hold down a job. While in the throes of active addiction, many things get swept to the wayside as drugs become the person’s main priority — for example, making and keeping appointments at the dentist.
Ways that drugs can directly affect teeth
In addition to a general reluctance to seek regular preventive care, drugs do directly impact tooth and gum health in a few different ways.
Acidic conditions: Certain drugs create acidic conditions in the mouth that work to wear down enamel. Methamphetamine is the worst offender — as the highly acidic substance is inhaled into the mouth, it leaves behind acid that softens tooth enamel and wears down the teeth. Cocaine is another drug that becomes acidic when mixed with saliva. This effect is particularly exacerbated when users rub it directly on their gums. Crack cocaine’s effect on teeth is similar.
Dry mouth: Many intoxicating substances impede the production of saliva, including marijuana, methamphetamine and alcohol. It’s important to maintain levels of saliva in the mouth because its flow reduces the buildup of bacteria and plays an important role in preventing tooth decay.
Grinding teeth: Certain drugs lead users to grind their teeth or clench their jaws while they are intoxicated. Heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy all carry this side effect. Grinding your teeth wears down their enamel and can lead to breakage, heavily exacerbating other symptoms of drug use.
Meth mouth: Methamphetamine is the worst drug that people can use when it comes to oral health — so bad that “meth mouth” has become a common nickname for the severe impacts it has on users’ teeth and gums. The combination of its acidity, saliva-reducing properties and causing users to grind their teeth makes it incredibly harmful. It’s so powerful that heavy meth users can begin to experience severe tooth decay within weeks of beginning to use the drug. Users of heroin’s teeth can be similarly affected.
Addicts’ lifestyles are not good for oral health
Some of the effects on drug users’ teeth are secondary — a result of the general lifestyle that drug addicts tend to fall into. Many drugs, such as marijuana, heroin and meth, cause people to crave sweet foods or junk food, and the high levels of sugar can damage teeth. Drug addicts often have poor diets in general as they lack money to eat well or don’t have an interest in preparing healthy foods.
Many addicts also forget to floss and brush their teeth on a regular basis, and are unlikely to seek routine dental cleanings and care by professionals.
A vicious cycle
Unfortunately, drug users can fall victim to a vicious cycle over time. Poor oral health triggers feelings of shame and depression — which people may choose to address by continuing to take drugs. Also, pain from untreated dental problems such as tooth decay or abscesses may lead people to self-medicate with pain-killing opioids. The further a person spirals into addiction, the more difficult it is for them to stop using and address their oral health care needs.
My name is Jeremy Rourke. I’m part of a family of dentists with my father, brother, cousin and nephew also being dentists. I won a University of Sydney Dental Alumni prize for being the top student in my year and graduated with Honours in 1971. I have been a Registered dentist for over 40 years. In that time I have created a few “firsts” in my efforts to stay ahead.