Drug abuse can have a serious impact on the body, causing major damage to the lungs, heart and brain. Dental health is also a major concern, and not just for eating and smiling. Oral health plays a serious role in your overall health, especially when impaired by drug addiction.
Many people think only a few drugs, like methamphetamine (crystal meth), cause dental damage, but believe it or not, almost all harmful substances can destroy your teeth. Cocaine, crack and alcohol can harm your teeth and gums, leading to serious illness in your heart and lungs, and other diseases like cancer and diabetes. Oral health is also linked to mental health, with some studies showing a link between poor dental hygiene and dementia.
When drug addiction damages your teeth and gums, you feel a great deal of physical and emotional pain. Abscessed or broken teeth can lead to depression about the judgment you face when people take a look at your mouth. Soon, you stop smiling altogether.
Substance abuse is on the rise. That means health complications, like dental health, are on the rise, too. Here’s what you need to know about the wear and tear illicit substances can have on your oral health.
Meth and Dental Health
When most people think of oral hygiene and drugs, they think of “meth mouth.” A recent study showed that more than 95 percent of methamphetamine users had cavities in their teeth, and more than half suffered from untreated tooth decay. Of all the meth users in the study, only 23 percent had all of their natural teeth.
Meth mouth is a result from the lack of saliva produced by the salivary glands. Our saliva is extremely important for tooth health, so when your mouth dries up from meth abuse, tooth decay is imminent. Meth users also engage in behaviors that can lead to dental damage. For example, meth is known for making its users pass out for extended periods of time — getting up to brush their teeth is that last thing on their minds.
Meth also causes users to grind their teeth. Without saliva and good oral habits, your teeth are so weak that grinding your teeth can cause them to chip and break. Meth is also known for being highly acidic, which adds to the level of decay. That’s why the teeth of people addicted to methamphetamine often appear stained black and brown, rotting, breaking and falling out. Going to the dentist can be challenging for those still using, as anesthetics and medications can have serious side effects with meth and other drugs still in the system.
Cocaine and Gum Disease
Gum disease often starts with gingivitis, which can make gums red, swollen and quick to bleed. At this stage, there is very little pain, but if left untreated, the pain comes quickly with the onset of periodontitis. When the disease spreads deep into the gum line, toxins from bacteria irritate the gums, so the immune system basically starts fighting itself. If not addressed quickly, the teeth and gums are broken down and destroyed.
Gum disease usually comes from poor oral hygiene, but it can also come from substance abuse. There are many ways to ingest powder cocaine; whether someone snorts, injects, smokes or rubs the substance on their gums, daily cocaine use strips the body of important nutrients like vitamin C and calcium, which has a direct impact on tooth and gum health.
Cocaine combines with saliva to become extremely acidic.That acidity breaks the teeth down by dissolving enamel. In addition, frequent cocaine users can find their palates damaged, which makes it hard to not only speak, but eat and drink as well. When cocaine users rub the substance on their gums, they can develop ulcers in the mouth. Like methamphetamine, cocaine users often engage in tooth grinding, a painful path to jaw damage, gum disease and tooth decay.
Alcohol and Tooth Decay
When we talk about substance abuse, few minds go immediately to alcohol. In many cases, alcohol is legal to drink. We only think of alcohol as illegal when someone over consumes and then gets behind the wheel of a car, but alcohol is an incredibly damaging substance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that excessive alcohol use can shorten a life by more than 30 years by damaging the brain, liver, heart, kidneys and other major organs.
Of course, there is also a major impact on dental health.
One of the scariest side effects of excessive drinking is oral cancer. Because alcohol impairs the immune system, the body cannot fight off illness like it should. Addicts are often malnourished, and alcoholics are no different. One study shows that 21 percent of alcoholics are undernourished, which means that the body isn’t getting the nutrients that it needs for good oral health.
Because most alcohol is high in sugar, many alcoholics suffer from tooth decay because of their frequent overconsumption. Binge drinking is often followed by vomiting, which can also wear away tooth enamel. Alcohol can aggravate an existing diagnosis of periodontal disease, meaning the substance can compound poor oral hygiene habits. Poor oral hygiene is common with alcohol users, so their risk of tooth decay and gum disease is substantially higher than non-drinkers.
Substance Abuse and Dental Health Behaviors
Each type of substance has its own chemical impact on dental health. However, the change in behavior that occurs along with substance abuse is also a huge factor. Some drugs, like methamphetamine and alcohol, can make a user blackout for extended periods of times. The recommended twice-a-day teeth brushing and flossing goes by the wayside. Some people battling addiction may not have a stable and steady home, which decreases access to the tools needed to maintain healthy oral hygiene, like a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash and dental floss, not to mention access to affordable professional dental care.
Food plays another role in oral health. Illicit substances often suppress the appetite, which can limit the amount of nutrients needed to keep the teeth healthy and strong. It can also mean that when someone addicted to drugs or alcohol does eat, they aren’t making the best meal choices. Coffee, candy, sodas and red wine have all been shown to damage oral health.
When it comes down to substance abuse and health, there are many causes for alarm. From cancer to heart disease, from liver failure to brain damage, it’s no secret that drugs and alcohol have a negative impact on overall health. While dental health may seem less serious than other afflictions, there is a deeper reason to be concerned.
Meth mouth doesn’t just lead to broken teeth; oral health is directly linked to heart health. The diseases in the gums can travel through the blood and infect the inner lining of the heart. A lack of calcium that damages teeth can also lead to bone diseases, like osteoporosis. Severe gum disease can lead to an increased risk of chronic kidney disease. While the drugs themselves can seriously harm these organs as well, the impact is two-fold when poor oral health comes into play.
But there can be hope.
For many people battling substance abuse, the first clue is a change in their outward appearance, and the mouth is one of the most noticeable physical traits. Oral health is incredibly important, and even when the situation looks grim, with proper care, dental health can be improved. The faster you make the decision to get help with addiction, the faster you can improve your oral health.