Substance abuse is a massive — and growing — problem not just in the United States, but worldwide. Some estimates suggest that as many as one in twenty people use illicit drugs each year — that’s nearly 250 million people.
But while plenty of research has been done on the links between drug use and health problems, it is much rarer to find research that addresses dental health. Since oral health is a critical facet of overall health, the relationship between drug use and oral health is just as important.
Drug Use and Tooth Decay
A recent review from the scientific journal Addiction decided to shine the spotlight on that connection. Researchers examined the data from 28 different studies worldwide that tackled the relationship between dental health and substance use disorder.
The negative impacts of drug use on oral health come in two different categories: Physiological effects, and lifestyle-related effects. Many illicit drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin, have the side effect of dry mouth. Decreased saliva production can open the mouth up to increased decay. Drugs like meth and ecstasy can cause bruxism, leading the tooth wear and increased stress on the joints and muscles of the jaw. And of course, drugs taken via the mouth can damage the teeth and gums directly.
Lifestyle-related effects of drug use can also hurt oral health. Frequently, people with substance abuse problems suffer from malnutrition or eat a diet high in sugar. Additionally, it’s common for drug users to practice poor dental hygiene at home, and fail to visit the dentist regularly for cleanings and checkups.
With all these effects combined, it should come as no surprise that those with drug abuse problems have notably worse oral health, and higher instances of cavities and gum disease. This knowledge can help medical professionals provide better treatment to drug users, but believe it or not, it could help non-drug users, too.
It’s Not Just Drugs That Hurt Oral Health
You don’t have to have a substance abuse problem to be affected by some or all of the oral health issues that affect drug users.
For example, it’s not just cocaine that causes dry mouth — so do many prescription drugs and even over-the-counter medications. And you don’t have to do meth to clench or grind your teeth. Bruxism is a common side effect of TMJ, can be an indicator of sleep apnea, and is often simply triggered by stress or anxiety. And plenty of the substances you pass through your mouth can erode your teeth, such as acidic foods like coffee, soda, and citrus.
There are also many causes of a poor diet. The average American consumes more than twice the recommended sugar intake: 22 teaspoons a day, which comes to around 130 pounds of sugar a year. And malnutrition doesn’t just strike third world countries; it’s possible to consume a high calorie diet but still be missing essential vitamins and minerals.
This is why it’s imperative to perform good oral hygiene at home, and see your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings. Communicating clearly with your dentist about your lifestyle, diet, medications, and health is the key to ensuring your oral health and your overall health are the best they can be.