- Meth is a dangerous and addictive drug that leads to self-neglect in long-term use.
- Meth use results in discolored, rotten, and disintegrating teeth, as well as gum disease.
- Treatment involves dental procedures and drug discontinuation.
- It is not recommended to treat meth mouth while still using the drug.
Meth mouth is a term used to describe a collection of dental issues brought on by methamphetamine drug use. Although many addictive drugs can lead to similar dental issues, these issues seem particularly pronounced in meth users. Worse still, abused drugs such as meth leads to suppression of pain responses, causing users to ignore the signs of tooth decay and periodontal diseases.
In January of 2008, the crime drama TV series Breaking Bad premiered, inviting people to witness the harrowing effects of crystal meth from the safety of their living rooms. Although some accused the show of glorifying meth addiction, it undoubtedly served to widen discussions about this dangerous drug and the all-encompassing toll it takes on users’ lives.
It seems these discussions are occurring at a crucial time.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 1.2 million people admitted to using meth within the last year, with 440,000 having reported using within the last month.
More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2015 (the most recent year that federal data is available) more than 4,500 individuals died from drug overdoses involving methamphetamine—an increase of 30% over 2014 figures, which cited 3,700 deaths.
One of the most tell-tale signs of a meth-ravaged individual is “meth mouth.” Let’s take a closer look at this condition to better understand the devastating effects of meth. We will also review dental treatments for former meth addicts looking for new smiles.
What Is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine (or meth) is a powerfully addictive drug that is smoked, snorted or injected. It induces a deliriously euphoric high that can last up to 12 hours—a result of dopamine levels in the brain that spike in response to the drug. Meth can raise dopamine levels to more than 12 times that caused by sex, food or other pleasurable activities.
Chronic use of the drug can bring about a variety of debilitating psychological conditions:
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Psychosis, including paranoia and hallucinations
- Memory loss
- Mood disturbances
- Convulsions leading to death
Note that these are not symptoms of meth use itself, but a result of changes within the brain and a result of brain damage.
Physical side effects include:
- Acne, infection, and other skin problems
- Shortness of breath
- High blood pressure
- Inferior diet
- Lack of hygiene
- Severe dental problems
This combination of physical and psychological effects take a toll on the meth user.
How Meth Affects the Mouth
A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association examined the mouths of 571 meth users. They found that 96% had cavities, and 31% had at least six missing teeth. Results showed a very high level of dental and periodontal disease. Smoking was also indicated as contributing to poor oral health.
Interestingly, women experienced greater tooth loss compared to men, and while the rate of cavities was similar, their front teeth were more dramatically affected than men’s.
The following are contributing factors to meth mouth. Each aspect goes hand in hand to contribute to the devastating effects of meth mouth.
Poor nutrition is a common feature of drug addiction as the user often neglects proper nutrition and instead focuses on their next high.
Meth addicts crave high-calorie sugary and carbonated drinks. There isn’t much research on this topic but there are several interesting theories including a possible molecular explanation or that it is the brain’s way of coping. Since meth addicts are accustomed to bursts of dopamine, the sugar may act as a substitute and support between bouts of getting high.
The acids in the soda and the glucose in the sugary foods all have a detrimental effect, increasing the growth of bacteria.
Meth is highly acidic, containing many corrosive chemicals including:
- Hydrochloric acid (used to make plastic)
- Lithium (found in batteries)
- Toluene (found in brake fluid)
- Sodium hydroxide (a dissolvant)
- Sulfuric acid (found in drain or toilet cleaner)
Meth aggressively attacks enamel, causing teeth to deteriorate at a rapid rate.
When meth addicts stop taking care of themselves, they stop brushing, flossing, and having regular dental examinations. A natural response to this neglect is weakening of tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and cavities.
After just a few sessions of smoking meth, a user’s teeth will begin to appear dark yellow. This worsens over time and eventually the protective enamel of teeth will begin to disintegrate. This leaves teeth very vulnerable to the acids in meth that do the most damage.
Eventually, teeth that were previously stained yellow will begin to turn brown and black—indicating advanced tooth decay.
Meth use often leads to bruxism, or teeth clenching and grinding—it is a result of the release of dopamine within the brain. This habit can break teeth and wear away at tooth enamel. If a tooth is broken down to the nerve center, there will be pain; if left untreated, it could become infected.
Meth is associated with xerostomia, or dry mouth and is a result of the drug damaging the salivary glands in the mouth, greatly reducing the output of saliva.
Saliva is important in maintaining a healthy mouth as it helps wash away acids and bacteria that damage teeth. Without adequate production, harmful bacteria forms, initiating tooth decay and gum disease.
Bleeding or Swollen Gums
Dry mouth combined with untreated cavities and poor oral hygiene leads to gingivitis. This is a condition characterized by swollen and tender gums. The gums may bleed, particularly when brushed. If left untreated, gingivitis can develop into a more severe form of gum disease, known as periodontitis, which is a major cause of tooth loss in adults.
With eroded gums or periodontitis, gums recede from the teeth, create pockets where bacteria and plaque grow, and results in infection. Once the infection gets beneath the gum line, periodontitis can cause tooth loss and can even destroy tissues, ligaments, and bones in the mouth.
Tooth loss is the result of all the issues we have looked at. Together, each element contributes to damaging teeth resulting in teeth loosening and falling out.
Treating Meth Mouth
Meth users can and should see a dental professional at any time. However, they should not seek surgical treatment until they are drug-free. Continued meth use will not only undo any treatment, but it could also present life-threatening complications when combined with anesthesia.
Dental treatment is a way for recovered addicts to get out from under the shadow of meth and start a new life. There are a variety of treatment options based on the nature and extent of the damage.
- Tooth extraction – Teeth may require removal and replaced with dental implants or dentures.
- Crowns – If the tooth is salvageable, a crown can be placed over an existing damaged tooth.
- Fillings – Some teeth can be repaired with a filling; the decayed material is removed, and the cavity is replaced with a synthetic material.
- Fluoride – Prescription fluoride can help get damaged teeth back on track. It will strengthen the teeth and fight bacteria.
- Salivary stimulants – These prescription drugs can increase salivation to counteract dry mouth.
- Oral hygiene habits – Instruction in proper tooth care and practicing good oral hygiene will help maintain dental health.
- Changes in diet – A well-balanced diet will contribute to a healthy mouth and your overall health; setting aside sugary sodas would also be a wise decision.
Planning Your Recovery
Treatment is not cheap. And costs vary according to location, the dental professional, and the issue. A simple filling could cost about $40 while an implant may be $4,000.
But bear in mind that there are options. With your dentist, you can create an action plan that fits your budget and needs. You can discuss treatment options and payment plans to help manage the cost of your recovery.
The road to recovery from meth addiction is long and difficult—and meth mouth is a sad reminder of this addiction. Thankfully, there are professionals skilled at providing the necessary treatments to help recovered addicts.
- Methamphetamine Abuse and Dentistry (2009) ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18992021
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: Methamphetamine (2013) drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-scope-methamphetamine-abuse-in-united-states
- Patterns of Tooth Wear Associated with Methamphetamine Use (2000) ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10972655
- Saini, G. K., Gupta, N. D., & Prabhat, K. C. (2013). Drug addiction and periodontal diseases. Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology, 17(5), 587–591. doi.org/10.4103/0972-124X.119277
- Shetty, V., Harrell, L., Murphy, D. A., Vitero, S., Gutierrez, A., Belin, T. R., … Spolsky, V. W. (2015). Dental disease patterns in methamphetamine users: Findings in a large urban sample. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 146(12), 875–885. doi.org/10.1016/j.adaj.2015.09.012
- The Relationship Between Methamphetamine Use and Dental Caries and Missing Teeth (2015) ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25883373