The Effects of Methamphetamines on Dental Health

Close-up of methamphetamine on table

 

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Methamphetamine, also known simply as "meth," is a strong stimulant street drug that's highly addictive. The use of methamphetamines can cause serious health issues, including severe and highly visible problems with the mouth and teeth. In fact, the association between methamphetamine use and dental disease has become so popularized in media that it's been given it's own epithet: "meth mouth."

What Is Meth Mouth?

“Meth mouth” is a term used to describe the visible effects of oral disease in a person who uses methamphetamine because of the rampant tooth decay that often occurs with the drug's use. People who use methamphetamine may have blackened, stained, broken, or rotting teeth both as a result of side effects of the drug itself and related lifestyle factors.

While "meth mouth" is not a clinical diagnosis, according to the American Dental Association, there is a high rate of both dental decay and periodontal disease among people who use methamphetamine that increases with age and regular methamphetamine use. Results of a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found, in a group of 571 methamphetamine users:

  • 96% had cavities
  • 31% were missing 6 or more teeth
  • Only 23% had all of their natural teeth
  • 6% of older meth users had fewer than 10 teeth
  • 40% admitted that they were embarrassed about their dental appearance

How Meth Can Damage Your Mouth

Methamphetamine use damages dental health in several ways:

  • Poor diet: Under the influence of meth and often during withdrawal, people often experience cravings for sugary foods and carbonated beverages, which are bad for teeth.
  • Lack of dental hygiene: The meth high can last up to 12 hours, during which time users often do not practice good dental hygiene such as brushing or flossing, which leave the sugary substances on their teeth for long periods of time.
  • Drug additives: The acidic contents of this drug can also damage teeth. Additives can include battery acid, lantern fuel, antifreeze, hydrochloric acid, drain cleaner, lye, and over-the-counter cold medications containing ephedrine.
  • Bruxism: Methamphetamine use can lead to the development of bruxism, a condition in which people clench and/or grind their teeth.
  • Xerostomia: Stimulant use, including meth, can also lead to xerostomia, or dry mouth, reducing protective saliva around the teeth.

Can Meth Mouth Be Reversed?

A study of people who use meth in China found that more than 97% had decayed teeth, but prevalence of decay was lower among those who used meth for fewer years and those who brushed their teeth at least twice per day. But even when practicing good dental hygiene, it's difficult to prevent the dental damage that often occurs with meth use. And while less serious cases of tooth decay can be treated, it can't be reversed.

In fact, using methamphetamine can cause decay to the extent that the teeth cannot be saved and must be pulled instead.

Unfortunately, there is not much that a dentist can do for a patient with "meth mouth" and successful "treatment" usually includes tooth extraction rather than reversal of the oral disease.

Ultimately, the best course of treatment for someone living with oral disease caused by meth use is to treat the addiction. The dentist may choose to educate patients on the effects of the drug and offer resources such as drug counseling services. Treating meth addiction is usually a long, ongoing process that requires medical detox along with ongoing therapy and social support to prevent a relapse.

A Word From Verywell

The physical appearance "meth mouth" is often shocking, and studies have shown that people who experience it are self-conscious about their appearance. Unfortunately, dental disease is but one of the health problems associated with methamphetamine use.

If you or a loved one suffers from meth addiction, talk to a doctor, therapist, or attend a support group. Help is available, but it's important for you to take the first step and ask for it.

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