- “Meth mouth” is defined by broken, discoloured and rotting teeth.
- Meth causes the salivary glands to dry out, which permits the mouth’s acids to eat away at the tooth enamel, causing cavities.
- Teeth are further damaged when meth addicts obsessively grind their teeth, binge on sugary food and drinks, and forget to brush or floss for long periods of time.
A common indicator of meth abuse is important tooth decay, a condition that has become known in the media as “meth mouth.” Individuals with “meth mouth” have blackened, stained, or rotting teeth, which frequently can’t be saved, even among young or short-term users. The exact causes of “meth mouth” are not yet completely understood. Different reports have attributed the decay to the corrosive effects of the chemicals discovered in the drug, like anhydrous ammonia (found in fertilizers), red phosphorus (found on matchboxes) and lithium (found in batteries), which when smoked or snorted might erode the tooth’s protective enamel coating; nonetheless, it’s more likely that this degree of tooth decay is brought on by a combination of side effects from a meth high.
When meth is ingested, it causes the individual’s blood vessels to shrink, limiting the steady blood supply that the mouth needs in order to remain healthy. With continuous shrinking, these vessels die and the oral tissues decay. Likewise, meth consumption causes “dry mouth” (xerostomia), and without enough saliva to neutralize the mouth’s harsh acids, those acids eat away at the tooth and gums, causing weak spots that are susceptible to cavities. The cavities are then exacerbated by behavior usual in individuals on a meth high: an important desire for sugary foods and drinks, compulsive tooth grinding, and the general neglect of regular brushing and flossing.
The scale of tooth decay differs widely among meth users. A 2000 report in the Journal of Periodontology discovered that individuals who snorted the drug had significantly worse tooth decay than individuals who smoked or injected it, even though all types of users suffered from dental problems. Anecdotal proof also suggests that the extent of tooth decay is not necessarily dependent on the length of meth consumption. “[O]ne gentleman said he used it for four months and there was nothing except for root tips left in his mouth,” said Dr. Athena Bettger, a dentist who works two days a week at the Multnomah County Jail in Portland, Ore. “Another gentleman said he was using it for four years, and … I think three teeth needed to come out and he needed a couple of fillings because of the cavities.”
Dentists like Dr. Bettger, who work in America’s prisons and jails, have seen certain of the worst cases of “meth mouth,” and state correctional facilities are feeling the impact on their budgets. In August 2005, National Public Radio reported that dental costs in the Minnesota Department of Corrections had doubled in the past five years, mainly because of the extensive dental work performed on former meth addicts. Even though there are no quantitative studies to document this phenomenon, anecdotal proof supports this trend. Dr. Chris Heringlake, a dentist in at St. Cloud Correctional Facility in Minnesota, told NPR that he originally saw “meth mouth” eight years ago, and now he sees it daily. Dr. Bettger has also seen this trend in Oregon: “The common trend that I am seeing is that there is a definite raise. … There are more and more teeth that need assistance and there are more and more [inmates] needing assistance.”