Methamphetamine, also known as “meth” or “crystal meth,” is an intensely addictive drug that has devastating consequences on the body, including the teeth and mouth. The severe oral health issues caused by meth include advanced tooth decay, staining, rotting and gum disease. Here’s why meth is so detrimental to the mouth explained by our dental professionals.
What Exactly Is Meth?
As mentioned, meth is a highly addictive and illegal street drug that is generally white and crystalline in appearance. Meth is also known as speed, crystal, glass and ice. It can be taken in several different ways, including snorting, smoking or injecting it with a needle. Almost immediately, users feel an overwhelming sense of false euphoria, confidence, and energy, which creates a strong desire to continue using it repeatedly. However, the effects only last for a few hours.
Why Is Meth Addicting?
According to American Addiction Centers1, the body loses its ability to create pleasure-inducing chemicals after prolonged meth use. The “feel-good” dopamine system and reward center in the brain are suppressed and, as a result, meth addicts can only feel happiness or other pleasurable feelings when using the drug.
What Is Meth Mouth?
The term “meth mouth” refers to the serious oral effects and poor dental health found in many meth addicts. A meth user’s teeth will progressively worsen—beginning with staining, then rotting and decaying teeth, severe gum disease and the teeth eventually falling out completely. The American Dental Association2 lists symptoms of meth mouth as:
- Dry mouth (xerostomia)
- Swollen or red gums
- Bleeding gums
- Dental discoloration and staining
- Chipped or cracked teeth
- Worn down or hollowed out teeth
- Tooth loss
Meth mouth is a characteristic of chronic meth abusers, along with other physical and mental health issues. The more meth is used and for longer periods of time, the worse the meth mouth symptoms will be.
Why Meth Causes Tooth Decay
Now that we’ve explained what meth mouth is, you may be wondering why meth has such detrimental effects on the mouth. Here are the most common reasons:
1. Meth Slows Salivary Functions
Methamphetamine is an acidic drug, which causes the mouth to become dry. Saliva is vital to keeping the mouth balanced and prevent acid from eating away at the tooth enamel. When the salivary glands are suppressed from prolonged use of meth, the mouth becomes very acidic and the teeth begin to rot.
2. Meth Causes Sugar Cravings
Another component of meth mouth is the intense craving for sugary drinks. Generally, meth users have a decrease in appetite, which is why many meth addicts experience sudden weight loss. However, sugar is often the only type of calories meth users want. Only ingesting sugary drinks and candy not only leads to malnutrition but tooth decay and cavities as well. Combined with a dry mouth, it’s the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
3. Lack of Oral Hygiene
For meth addicts, their focus and attention are on finding the next “high.” Unfortunately, this means other things that were once considered necessary are no longer a priority. Meth users often go for long periods of time without brushing, flossing or practicing any form of oral hygiene, which only adds to progressive tooth decay.
4. Teeth Grinding and Clenching
Another side effect of meth abuse is grinding or clenching the teeth. Meth is a stimulant, which increases the heart rate and metabolism. This also causes meth users to become hyperactive, often grinding their teeth without even realizing they’re doing it. This added pressure on weakened teeth leads to the teeth cracking, breaking and completely falling out.
5. Chemicals in Meth
Meth is made of hazardous chemicals that can eat away at the enamel on your teeth. Along with all the other harmful effects that meth can have on the mouth, meth users’ teeth are already more susceptible to damage. Without protective enamel, the teeth are easily affected by the chemicals and begin to rot more quickly.
Can the Effects of Meth Mouth Be Reversed?
When oral symptoms of meth mouth begin to show, the damage is usually at the point of being irreversible. The level of tooth decay and corrosion found in meth users is not something that dentists can repair or reverse. However, recovering addicts often choose to have cosmetic dental treatments done to improve their smiles and confidence.
Dental Care for Meth Mouth
Dentists can extract remaining teeth that are rotting or decayed past the point of saving, then try to salvage any teeth that may still be unaffected. Some individuals will only need a few crowns, dental implants or porcelain veneers to restore their teeth. However, other recovering addicts will need full dentures after all their teeth are completely removed.
The most crucial thing meth users can do to improve their oral health and overall wellbeing is to get help to stop using the drug. To find support, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline at 1-800-622-HELP for free and confidential assistance.
1 American Addiction Centers. (23 February 2021). Meth Addiction, Abuse, and Treatment. Retreived 18 May 2021 from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/meth-treatment
2 American Dental Association (ADA). Meth Mouth: How Methamphetamine Use Affects Dental Health. Retrieved 18 May 2021 from https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/m/meth-mouth