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What Is Meth Mouth?

Excessive methamphetamine use can lead to “meth mouth,” a condition that involves tooth decay, tooth loss and gum disease. Individuals with meth mouth often neglect their oral health, eat sugary foods and grind their teeth. While successful dental treatment for meth mouth isn’t common, rehab centers offer tools for overcoming methamphetamine abuse and its negative health effects.
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People who abuse methamphetamine often deal with a number of problems. Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant often used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition to stroke, brain damage and addiction, meth use can cause significant dental problems.

Abuse of various other drugs also can cause severe oral hygiene problems. It can result in tooth damage, gum disease and dry mouth, a condition that increases the risk of tooth decay. In some cases, substance use can increase the risk for oral cancer.

Methamphetamine and crystal meth can decrease the amount of protective saliva around the teeth and lead to a condition called meth mouth, a term used to describe the effects of methamphetamine use on oral health.

Also known as “crank decay,” meth mouth is a condition characterized by the fracturing, erosion, decay or loss of teeth caused by methamphetamine use. According to a 2005 New York Times report, a growing number of people in rural areas and cities are experiencing meth mouth, and severe damage can occur within months of initiating meth abuse.

Causes of Meth Mouth

Upon consumption, methamphetamine shrinks blood vessels and limits blood supply to the mouth. As blood vessels continue to shrink and die, oral tissues decay. Over time, this process can damage the teeth and gums.

Dry mouth may also cause meth mouth. People with dry mouth experience a reduced flow of saliva, which helps fend off acids in the mouth. Without saliva, those acids erode protective tooth enamel and damage the gums, making the teeth more vulnerable to cavities.

Research has associated the acidic properties of methamphetamine with tooth decay. Chemicals found in the drug — such as anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorus and lithium — can deteriorate tooth enamel and contribute to meth mouth.

However, severe tooth decay caused by methamphetamine use is likely the result of dry mouth, poor oral hygiene and tooth grinding. Meth users often neglect their personal hygiene and clench their jaws, which exacerbates declines in dental health, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over time, the teeth of meth users become brittle and could eventually fall out.

A person’s method of ingestion also contributes to meth mouth. A report published in the Journal of Periodontology indicated that people who snorted methamphetamine experienced worse tooth decay than individuals who smoked or injected the drug.

Symptoms of Meth Mouth

The severity of meth mouth differs from person to person. People that heavily abuse methamphetamine, fail to maintain proper oral hygiene and indulge in drinks and foods that are high in sugar will likely have worse meth mouth than infrequent methamphetamine users.

Signs and symptoms of meth mouth include:

  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Unusually shortened teeth
  • Loose teeth
  • Red and inflamed gums
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Broken, fractured or crumbled teeth

A 2012 study published in Quintessence International compared the oral health of methamphetamine users and those who do not abuse the drug. Researchers conducted interviews, surveys and an oral cavity examination on 28 meth abusers and a control group of 16 people who don’t use meth. They found that meth users had significantly higher rates of missing teeth, tooth decay, plaque and calculus.

In 2015, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, examined the mouths and mental health of 571 methamphetamine users. According to the results, methamphetamine users often experienced dental problems or periodontal disease.

Among study participants:

  • 31 percent had six or more missing teeth
  • 58 percent had untreated tooth decay
  • 96 percent had cavities

The report also indicated that female methamphetamine users had higher rates of tooth loss and cavities than males who used the drug. Women also had a higher prevalence of tooth decay in the front teeth. Older people, smokers and individuals who moderately or heavily used methamphetamine were highly affected by tooth decay or gum disease.

Can Meth Mouth Be Fixed?

Successful dental treatment of meth mouth is rare. Many methamphetamine users experience extreme decay that damages teeth beyond repair. When treating patients with meth mouth, dentists often conduct full-mouth tooth extractions and replace missing teeth with dentures.

Many people who are addicted to methamphetamine neglect their oral health and fail to seek dental treatment, which can worsen meth mouth. In general, dental treatment for methamphetamine users should not take place until 24 hours after last use, and it often involves pain management using proper doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

To save the mouth from irreparable damages, people addicted to methamphetamine should seek professional assistance. Rehab centers across the United States can help people overcome methamphetamine and crystal meth addiction. These facilities develop meth treatment plans to meet an individual’s specific needs.

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