In 2004, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon started a project called Faces of Meth, which shows mugshots before and after a few months to a few years of meth use. Most of the images show a significant change over a few months to a few years. 

The project highlights the consequences and health risks of meth use disorder. One of these health risks is deteriorating oral health. Meth is associated with a variety of dental diseases, causing a condition colloquially known as meth mouth. 

Oral health may seem like a low priority concern when it comes to illicit drug use and addiction. However, the diseases and deterioration of one’s teeth and gums while on meth can be extensive. In some cases, infections can cause serious complications. 

Learn more about the effects of meth on the teeth and gums, why the drug causes these issues, and why it should be avoided.

What Is Meth Mouth?

Meth mouth is the colloquial name for a range of dental complications that come from long-term meth abuse. Meth mouth is not a single oral health problem; it’s a collection of problems and symptoms that are all associated with meth use. Meth has been seen to cause cavities, infections, abscesses, chipped teeth, and periodontal disease. 

Meth mouth is often characterized by severe tooth decay. One 2015 study found that meth users had high rates of dental disease with a dose-response relationship. That means that people who used higher amounts of meth or used it for longer periods of time tended to have more oral health issues. 

People seeking meth addiction treatment often have oral health issues that need to be addressed in treatment. These dental problems can range from causing uncomfortable symptoms to serious medical complications.

What Causes Meth Mouth?

Most people may assume that meth just directly rots the teeth and gums, leading to the effects seen in meth mouth. However, meth’s effects on one’s oral health come from a variety of direct and indirect factors. Either way, meth represents a huge challenge to users and the dentists who treat them. 

Direct Causes

One of the most direct causes is meth’s effects on saliva production and dry mouth. Meth has systemic effects in salivary glands, which leads to a feeling of dry mouth. Other diseases that decrease saliva production, like Sjogren’s syndrome, can lead to similar rates of tooth decay. 

Saliva is more than just moisture. Saliva is mostly water, which is important for a healthy mouth. If you’ve ever eaten a large amount of a powdered substance like a spoonful of cinnamon, you know how difficult it is to eat something that’s extremely dry. Moisture helps you get food down safely, avoiding choking and abrasions. 

Though it contains 99 percent water, saliva also contains the following essential ingredients:

  • Mucus. Mucus offers a protective coating that traps foreign particles before they can damage the mouth, nose, throat, and lungs.
  • White blood cells. These immune system cells help to fight disease and infections that might enter your body through your mouth.
  • Enzymes. The enzymes in your mouth are instrumental for the first stages of digestion. They help start to break down fats and starches, and they can also break down food particles that get stuck between your teeth.
  • Antimicrobial agents. Natural antiseptics like lysozymes help to keep your mouth clean and kill germs that enter your mouth.

In many ways, saliva is your first line of defense in your mouth. Without it, your mouth is vulnerable to damage, disease, and decay that this special formulation is designed to protect against. 

Indirect Causes

Meth causes some other effects that can have indirect causes on your dental health. For instance, dry mouth causes you to crave liquids. Meth use often tends to suppress your appetite, so you may eat less. Between a calorie deficit and the need for hydration, you may crave sugary beverages like soda. With less saliva helping to protect your mouth from sugar’s potentially damaging effects, you’re more likely to get cavities. 

Active addiction to all kinds of substances often leads to a lack of attention to personal hygiene. That can cause meth users to neglect some basic oral hygiene practices like brushing and flossing, which leads to cavities and gum disease.

Stimulants have also been known to cause a side effect called bruxism, or teeth clenching. Meth, cocaine, and even MDMA can cause your jaw to tighten up, which can lead to sore jaw muscles, teeth grinding, and jaw clenching. In cases of chronic use, meth can cause trismus, also called lockjaw. This happens when the jaw tightens, and you are unable to open your mouth.

Complications From Meth Mouth

When you think of complications from meth use, tooth decay might seem pretty mild. Lots of people get cavities and oral health problems, why is meth mouth such a big deal? The problem with meth is that it can cause extensive oral health issues. Infections and tooth abscesses can even become deadly if they are left unchecked. 

In other cases, you can experience mouth and jaw pain that requires extensive dental work to remedy. For some, tooth rot is so bad that it causes you to lose all or most of your teeth. 

In recovery, the need to fuel addiction starts to wane, and new priorities become more critical like personal hygiene. During addiction treatment, people often seek dental care and can often treat many of the issues that were caused by meth use. 

However, the costs associated with extensive oral health problems can be high. In some cases, teeth need to be removed entirely and replaced. Without insurance or other forms of financial aid, the costs of complicated dental procedures can be extensive.

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