Substance Use and Oral Health

Close up of mouth getting dental exam

Written by: Gina Sharps, MPH, RDH, CTTS

It is often said, a smile is the window to the soul –but can substance use really affect one’s smile and overall oral health? …. The answer is a resounding YES! Even after just a short period of substance use, whether it be through drugs or alcohol, your oral health can begin to reveal the signs of addiction. The bottom-line is, your oral health reflects everything you do.  

So, how does substance use affect teeth and oral health? 

Many drugs cause a craving for sugar, such as sweet and fizzy drinks, which can cause cavities. Drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin can cause individuals to experience a dry mouth which can also lead to cavities and gum disease. Other drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine can cause some individuals to clench their jaws and grind their teeth resulting in cracked or broken teeth, as well as headaches and jaw pain. 

Alcoholic drinks such as white wine and beer can be very acidic—meaning, it can cause the enamel (the outer layer of your teeth) to become thin, possibly leading to pain and sensitivity. 

In addition, during periods of substance use, toothbrushing and good oral hygiene habits are less likely to occur, setting individuals up for some pretty nasty conditions including gum disease, cavities and tooth loss. 

So, you may be asking, what can I do to fix the damage caused from past substance use, and how do I prevent new problems?   

First and foremost, you need to find a good dental home. A dental home is a dental office where you go for most of your dental needs. You will go back to this office each time you have a dental need. If you have a dental need that the dentist cannot do in the office, the dentist will refer you to a specialist who can treat you. Once you locate a good dental home, the dentist will start treatment and help you with strategies to prevent further disease. Be prepared to complete a thorough health and dental history (be honest and share any current and past substance use), along with receiving x-rays as they are vital in planning the very best treatment for you. 

*As a special note, starting January 1st of this year, West Virginia Medicaid is now covering both preventive and restorative services (fixing cavities) for adults. There are limitations to the benefit, so please make sure you understand your full treatment plan and any financial payments you may be responsible for.  

Now, as for preventing any new dental problems, a good oral hygiene routine at home can go a long way in helping reduce the damage caused by using drugs and drinking alcohol. A good way to start is by brushing your teeth last thing at night and at least one other time during the day using a fluoride toothpaste. Don’t rinse your mouth out with water after brushing as we want the teeth to receive the full benefit of bathing in the fluoridated toothpaste 😊 (fluoride helps to strengthen and restore the teeth).  

As for flossing, I’ll just say this….I had a professor in college that when asked “Do I really have to floss my teeth?” answered with “only the ones you want to keep” and in reality, that’s the truth! If you don’t floss, you never clean in-between your teeth….aagghh!!! In essence, floss cleans away plaque and debris from in-between your teeth and reduces the risk of decay and gum disease.  

I hope this information is a good start and helps get you on your way to a lifetime of happy and healthy smiles. 

 For more information and additional resources, check out the following: 

Tobacco, alcohol and drugs effect on your oral health 

How Drug Abuse Affects Dental Health 

Gina Sharps, MPH, RDH, CTTS is an oral health educator at Marshall University School of Medicine and the coordinator for the West Virginia Oral Health Coalition. She brings 27 years of clinical and public health experience to the field. Gina is a past president of the West Virginia Dental Hygienists’ Association (WVDHA), has served on the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Medical Dental Advisory Committee and currently serves as a consultant with the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors.

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