Drug and alcohol addiction takes a toll on the entire body, including the teeth and gums. Although gum disease, cavities, cracked teeth and other dental problems are prevalent side effects of addiction, they are typically ignored by the addicted person, and all too often, by health care providers as well.
Many serious dental problems are caused by exposing the teeth and gums to harmful substances, but often, the cause is poor dental hygiene and overall carelessness about personal health due to addiction-related changes in the brain.
All addictions play havoc with dental health, but the ways in which teeth are harmed varies depending on the substance.
Meth is one of the major culprits, not surprisingly since methamphetamines are manufactured using highly toxic, corrosive substances such as hydrochloric or sulfuric acid that degrade the enamel and rot the teeth. Commonly known as “meth mouth,” meth users are often easy to identify by their crumbling, blackened teeth.
The damage, which occurs within weeks, is caused not only by the toxic substances, but by behaviors such as frequent grinding and clenching of the teeth, improper diet, a high sugar intake and poor dental hygiene.
Cocaine, like methamphetamine, is a stimulant and the effects are similar although damage tends to be slower and less pronounced. Nevertheless, the high acid content of cocaine, combined with a decrease in saliva, causes significant erosion of the teeth. The dry mouth associated with cocaine use leads many users to drink excessive quantities of sugary drinks, which further contributes to cavities.
Heavy users of opiates such as heroin or morphine, or prescription drugs like Hydrocodone or Vicodin, often crave sweets, which contributes to cavities and other dental problems. Teeth grinding, common among heroin addicts, can cause teeth to break or crumble.
Experts aren’t sure if dental problem among marijuana users are directly connected to the drug, or to the lifestyle of frequent users. However, dry mouth and lack of saliva are contributing factors to erosion of enamel and cavities. Heavy use of cannabis may also contribute to a higher incidence of oral cancer.
Party drugs, including Ecstasy, MDMA and hallucinogens such as LSD, are often responsible for significant wear when people clench and grind their teeth. Drug users frequently drink large amounts of acidic sugary drinks to offset severe mouth dryness.
Alcohol causes dry mouth and a decrease in saliva, which contributes to erosion of dental enamel. However, significant damage can be caused by vomiting while under the influence. Alcohol is also corrosive to the gums, which contributes to a higher risk of oral cancer.
Cigarette smoking creates a major risk for the health of the teeth and gums, and the problem is significantly magnified for people who also drink or use drugs. Approximately half of all adult smokers have gum disease, and smokers are about twice as likely to experience tooth loss than non-smokers. Smoking also reduces the body’s ability to fend off infections, including infections of the gums.