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Effects of Substance Abuse on Teeth
Many problems can arise as a result of abusing illegal substances, not the least of which is the negative impact that drugs can have on the teeth of people who misuse them. Many illegal drugs have the ability to severely damage a person’s teeth and even cause tooth loss if steps are not taken to stop the drug use and to obtain dental care. First, however, one must understand that damaged teeth are more than just unsightly. Beyond what is cosmetic, damaged or rotting teeth can also result in problems with one’s physical health. Because of this, it is important that people who are using drugs understand exactly how their substance abuse is damaging their teeth and that they get the help needed to stop.
For many, teeth are not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing the negative effects of drugs; however, people who are familiar with methamphetamine, or meth, are not unfamiliar with this particular type of problem. That’s because meth is associated with severe tooth decay known as “meth mouth,” which leaves the teeth blackened, rotting, and crumbling. But although meth is one of the drugs most commonly associated with dental problems, it isn’t the only one. Cocaine, for example, can erode enamel and lead to periodontal disease that may eventually cause gums to recede and loosen teeth. Other illegal drugs that affect the teeth include heroin, Ecstasy, and even marijuana. Depending on which drug is being abused, it may contain chemicals that cause decay, and there are numerous other issues that may arise as a result of substance abuse.
Drugs affect teeth by creating conditions that are favorable to decay or the wearing down of teeth. With meth, for example, the acidic nature of the drug wears down enamel and the drug itself causes dry mouth. Chronic mouth dryness is a problem that is common with many drugs, such as cannabis. These drugs reduce the flow of saliva, which would normally serve to wash away leftover food debris and decrease the amount of bacteria that inhabit the mouth. Saliva also helps fight acids from food and drink by neutralizing them and aids in the repair of enamel after it has been damaged by acidic foods. When drugs reduce the amount of saliva that one’s mouth produces, it is unable to provide these benefits, which contributes to thinning of the enamel and bacteria buildup that leads to plaque, decay, and cavities.
Bruxism, which is the grinding of one’s teeth, is another damaging and common side effect of certain drugs. When a person is addicted to a drug that causes them to regularly grind their teeth, the action causes them to loosen, fracture, or wear down. Eventually, a person who takes drugs that cause bruxism may even suffer from the loss of their teeth. Substance abuse may also lead to chronic malnutrition, as it does with heroin, which can cause decay of the teeth.
Other types of drugs can cause vomiting to occur. When a person vomits, they are expelling stomach acids that come into contact with and erode tooth enamel. Additionally, people with severe addictions may lower their hygiene standards, including oral hygiene, as the high from the drug and their need to use more of it becomes the greatest priority in their lives. When a person does not regularly brush their teeth, the risk of dental problems increases. If their substance abuse problem is causing them to vomit and they are not properly brushing after, the resulting dental issues can be even more severe. In addition, some drugs increase one’s cravings for sweets. This increased sugar intake paired with poor oral hygiene also hastens decay.
Often, a simple lack of dental care can result in the most drastic dental problems. People who are abusing or addicted to drugs may fail to obtain regular dental examinations and cleanings, which can prevent problems from being detected early. Substances like drugs and alcohol can also decrease one’s ability to feel the pain associated with cavities. As a result, many substance abusers fail to have the pain checked by a dentist. In other cases, a person may attempt to self-medicate any oral pain away by taking more drugs as opposed to seeking out a dentist for treatment that may save their teeth.
Learn more about substance abuse, addiction, and how they can impact one’s teeth and overall health by clicking any of the following links:
- Substance Abuse
- Substance Abuse Facts
- Substance Abuse Prevention
- Meth Mouth
- Health Consequences of Illegal Drug Use
- Stimulants of Abuse and Oral Health (PDF)
- Substance Use Amphetamines
- Substance Abuse and Dependence (PDF)
- Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs
- Handout: Physical and Psychological Effects of Substance Abuse (PDF)