Meth Mouth and its Effects on the Nation’s Prison System
July 26th, 2012
A guest post by Alexis Goodrich.
Meth mouth describes the grisly effects methamphetamine has on its users’ oral health. Over a short period, users can experience total deterioration of tooth enamel, gum recession and serious bone damage causing meth mouth . While this problem affects users and local dental communities, it has also spread to the nation’s prisons. It is estimated that over one third of all U.S. inmates have meth mouth, which is leading to record high prison health care costs. Because of the enormity of this problem, it’s important to take a closer look at this drug and its effects.
This person does not have meth mouth.
Methamphetamine users experience many health issues, but the most obvious is the deterioration of physical appearance. Meth use causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to all parts of the body. Restricted blood flow/weakened blood vessels results in both tissue damage and an inability to repair that damage. Meth has gained notoriety for its users’ appearance. Physical decline happens quickly, even after brief periods of use. A New York Times article describes the onset of oral effects as follows: “In short stretches of time, sometimes just months, a perfectly healthy set of teeth can turn a grayish-brown, twist and begin to fall out, and take on a peculiar texture less like that of hard enamel and more like that of a piece of ripened fruit.”
Oral health is adversely affected by meth for a number of reasons and causes meth mouth . Chemicals in the drug like anhydrous ammonia and lithium (found in car batteries), erode teeth’s protective enamel. Combined with the shrinkage of blood vessels, this means the mouth has no natural defense to the drug or any other dangerous activity. After ingesting meth, users experience a lack of saliva, which spurs bacteria growth. Dry mouth also leads them to seek out sugary, sweet drinks such as Mountain Dew, which contains over 11 teaspoons of sugar in one 12-ounce can. Coupled with lack of brushing/daily dental care, sugary drinks cause plaque build-up and tooth decay, which results in severe cavities. When left untreated, teeth begin to rot and ultimately fall out. The ingredients, restricted blood flow, lack of saliva, and heavy ingestion of sugary drinks will cause teeth to rot and serious dental care will be needed post-addiction.
Unfortunately for our country, post-addiction dental care is reaching epidemic proportions. Many meth users find themselves locked up and in need of serious dental reconstruction. A National Public Radio story on the rising costs of meth-related dental care in our nation’s prisons reported that there is “a virtual onslaught of prisoners needing dental work, […] a problem that is getting worse by the month.” As the number of meth mouth patients rises, prisons must devote a larger portion of their health care budgets to emergency dental care. Many users end up losing their teeth and the cost of prosthetic teeth can exceed $2,000. “Although officials make the prisoners wait two years for them, it makes little difference. They either spend the money on new teeth or spend it on special liquid food and dietary supplements.” Clearly, this will lead to an enormous and unnecessary rise in our nation’s prison costs.
The increase in dental costs is also affecting dentists in regions where meth mouth is prevalent. Some leave their normal practices to devote time to prisons because work is steady and abundant. While meth mouth may boost income for dentists, it also poses an ethical dilemma. Do they recommend treatment for the addiction or just provide the best health care possible, even if the patient will continue to use? Some dentists have found a middle ground, and are using their patients to educate the dental community. Meth mouth is still relatively undocumented so professionals in rural states/prisons hope to build research and share educational tools within the industry. Their hope is that precautionary screening and early detection can help save patients’ teeth and shed some light on this growing epidemic.
Meth addiction is affecting our nation’s prisons and rural communities in a serious, urgent way. With a national budget crises and high rates of addiction, something needs to be done. As one prison dentist reported to NPR, “I really think this is like a giant train locomotive that’s just going to be gaining steam and going down the track unless something’s done about it.”
Do you or someone you know need help with meth addiction? Find a treatment facility in a city/state near you.
About the author:
Alexis Goodrich is the brand manager at Best Dentist Guide, a free guide that helps in selecting the best professional for your dental needs. Find and compare top-rated dentists, based on ratings, patient reviews, specialized training and degrees, years of practice, convenience and several other factors. Follow her on Twitter, @alexisgoody and @bestdent1st for more dental related topics.