Dentists seeing signs of drug abuse

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Police officers, judges and jails aren't the only ones feeling the effect of rising methamphetamine use in Moffat County. Area dentists report an increase in the number of patients whose teeth and gums are severely damaged by the drug.

"I see it a lot in jail patients, but not a lot in my practice," Craig dentist John Ilko said. "It's a different patient group, a different pool."

Signs of methamphetamine use are prevalent in a user's mouth. The toxic chemicals used to make the drug irritate and burn the skin inside the mouth, creating sores that lead to infection.
Chronic meth smokers have teeth rotted to the gum line from the continuous effect of the vapors on tooth enamel. The condition is referred to as "meth mouth."

Even snorting meth causes chemical damage to teeth.Toxic substances drain through the nasal passages and into the mouth, "bathing" the teeth.

Symptoms are fairly recognizable, Ilko said. Meth use leads to tooth decay, cracked teeth and gum disease. Although those are symptoms nearly anyone can have, they progress quickly in the mouths of meth users, Ilko said.

Saliva helps protect teeth from acidic substances, but meth use dries out the salivary glands.

According to the South Dakota-based Meth Awareness and Prevention Project, meth users treat "cottonmouth" with lots of sugary soda, leading to tooth decay.

Because the drug can make users feel anxious or nervous, causing them to clench or grind their teeth, regular meth users may develop cracks in their teeth.

"Generally, I don't get them until it's an emergency," he said.

Northwest Colorado Dental Clinic Director Debi Harmon said several of the clinic's clients show symptoms of meth use.

"We're seeing it here," she said. "We don't have a lot of cases, but there are definitely some."

She plans to release a report in January that will include the number of patients who exhibited signs of meth use.

Meth mouth is showing up frequently and creating a new host of problems at the Moffat County Jail.

Because of an increase in the number of inmates admitted on drug-related charges, jail officials have to budget for more funds each year to cover medical needs, jail administrator Dean Herndon said.

"Almost everybody who comes in here is on some kind of meth charge," he said. 'If you're spending money on a dentist, you can't spend money on meth."

In 2000, the jail's health care contract through Correction Healthcare was $4,000 a month, or about $48,000 a year. Jail officials expect health care costs to be $74,700 next year. Much of those costs are attributed to an increase in tooth extractions and oral surgery, Herndon said.

About 16 years ago, the jail paid for an average of five tooth extractions a year. That number is up to about 15 a year, at a cost of about $300 a tooth, he said.

After being released from jail, former inmates are required to repay the bills. But the jail receives only a fraction of the reimbursements it's owed, Herndon said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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