Scaring people with exaggerated stories of the effects of drugs and alcohol is counterproductive, so writing this article is a delicate task. When some authorities are willing to say almost anything if it might scare just one child away from drug use, all authorities lose some credibility in the trade-off. Although it may sound alarmist, methamphetamine use can change the human body in dramatic ways, and these physical changes can occur in a relatively short period of time. One of the most startling effects is what is known as “meth mouth,” which is the result of the rapid decay and destruction of teeth. Not all methamphetamine users have such dramatic dental destruction, but it is not uncommon.
A common side effect of meth abuse is extreme tooth decay, a condition that has become known in the media as "meth mouth." Users with "meth mouth" have blackened, stained, or rotting teeth, which often can't be saved, even among young or short-term users. The exact causes of "meth mouth" are not fully understood. Various reports have attributed the decay to the corrosive effects of the chemicals found in the drug, such as 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; however, 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 user's blood vessels to shrink, limiting the steady blood supply that the mouth needs in order to stay healthy. With repeated shrinking, these vessels die and the oral tissues decay. Similarly, meth use leads to "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 common in users on a meth high: a strong desire for sugary foods and drinks, compulsive tooth grinding, and the general neglect of regular brushing and flossing.
If the problem stopped there, people could learn to live with the gap, but one lost tooth sets in motion the atrophy of the bone material in the jaw where the tooth once resided. Bone loss causes surrounding gums to recede, leaving neighboring teeth at greater risk.
Images by Joseph Gaspari
The jaw continues to break down over time, something that is seen usually among the elderly, and the skin becomes somewhat looser. In this way, a face can age dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Dental care is critical to stopping this process. Dental implants are a more recent development in dentistry that give the jaw a reason to stick around.
Photo credit: Evergreen State College, WA
Methamphetamine use is an ugly business. If you aren’t too horrified, check out Faces of Meth, featuring booking photos before and after a period of methamphetamine use. Ranging from a few months' time to a period of a few years or more, the effects are striking.
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