Marijuana Use and Oral Health Effects
Is smoking marijuana ruining your smile?
Now that marijuana is legal in many states for recreational or medicinal purposes (or both) we will soon be able to conduct more comprehensive studies on the true oral health effects of cannabis use. What we understand so far about the oral health effects of smoking cannabis is based on the anecdotal evidence collected by dentists from their patients over the years. We have compiled what you need to know about marijuana use and its oral health effects whether you’re a recreational user or use cannabis for a health condition.
Marijuana is the second most widely used psychotropic drug in the United States behind alcohol. Now that marijuana is no longer illegal in many states and is used by more people, it’s a great time to clear up misconceptions and misinformation that abounds about the drug.
Throughout the last 5,000 years of history, there is evidence of marijuana being used medicinally and spiritually from Ancient Egypt to Rome and China to India. In 1600s America, hemp-the fiber of the cannabis plant-was often grown to make sails, clothing, and ropes. By the 1800s marijuana had been accepted in mainstream medicine and was used to treat opioid withdrawal, stimulate appetite, and relieve nausea and vomiting.
Cannabis (AKA weed, pot, grass, dope, marijuana, hash and other names) is a cannabinoid drug-one that joins with cannabinoid receptors in the body and brain. These receptors in the central nervous system are part of the endocannabinoid system which plays a role in many physiological processes including pain, mood, memory, sleep, and appetite. Basically, cannabinoids impact the way cells send and process messages and users get a mild sedative or mood-enhancing effect when using marijuana recreationally. In clinical applications, it can relieve pain and prevent nausea.
The most common form of cannabinoids is cannabis, the dried leaves and buds (flowers) of the Cannabis sativa plant that is smoked in a joint (rolled in paper) or bong (water pipe) and through vaping pens. There are also topical creams, liquids, sprays and oils that contain cannabis. In addition, marijuana edibles, food and beverage products infused with cannabis, are becoming more widely available.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the cannabinoid, one of hundreds in cannabis that causes the psychoactive effects and makes users feel high. CBD (cannabidiol) is a nonpsychoactive compound extracted from either hemp or marijuana and is available in oils, supplements and more. Cannabidiol (CBD) was approved by the FDA to treat certain forms of epilepsy. Many people use CBD to get relief from anxiety, depression, and insomnia, but CBD doesn’t make them feel high because it doesn’t contain THC.
Marijuana’s history and acceptance in America has evolved over time. Initially, it was used as a painkiller and an ingredient in many medications as well as used recreationally when Mexican immigrants first introduced the concept to the United States. Later, marijuana became popular in the counterculture of the 1960s as a harmless high. Marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 drug-as are heroin and LSD-when the United States Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The act also stated that marijuana had no medicinal value which then made it difficult for doctors and scientists to continue to study its health benefits.
Today, marijuana remains illegal under United States federal law. However, many states have now legalized its sale for medical and/or recreational use. As of January 1, 2020, 11 states have fully legalized marijuana following the state of Colorado’s lead-the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2014.
What Does Marijuana Do to Oral Health?
At this time, it is believed that the negative oral health effects of marijuana occur when you smoke it, similar to smoking tobacco. Frequent pot smokers typically have more issues with gum inflammation and disease, but there are other factors that are common amongst marijuana users; such as a higher rate of smoking tobacco, consumption of alcohol, and other drug use as well as general fewer visits to the dentist for preventative care along with poor oral hygiene that could cause those issues. As a more diverse population begins to use marijuana, researchers and dental professionals will be able to gather more evidence to determine the true marijuana effects on your oral health.
One of the most widely known effects of marijuana use is “munchies.” When someone is high and reaches for food and a drink to satiate their hunger, they don’t often choose tooth-healthy options. They typically have sugary drinks and processed foods that are well-known to contribute to tooth decay and cavities. This is likely one of the reasons dentists see a higher rate of caries (tooth decay) in marijuana users especially in teeth that normally aren’t prone to decay.
Another common experience when smoking pot is “cotton mouth.” Dry mouth (xerostomia) is caused by under-functioning salivary glands. The THC in pot sends signals to the endocannabinoid receptors to limit saliva production when smoking pot. Saliva is important for good oral health because it flushes out bacteria, prevents bad breath, helps break down food, prevents high levels of plaque build-up, slows down tooth decay, and more.
The high temperatures inhaled when smoking marijuana can irritate the gums and lead to sensitivity, swelling and bleeding. There are also carcinogens in the smoke that can be damaging. Ultimately, pot smokers need to take proper care of their gums when using to better prevent periodontal disease and gingivitis.
Over time, your teeth will likely get stained from the marijuana smoke with continued use. Even with good oral hygiene and regular trips to the dentist, discoloration is still likely when smoking pot. You might want to consider whitening solutions.
Increased levels of bacteria
Cavity-causing bacteria seems to increase in the mouths of those who smoke marijuana. Some studies suggest that this is because smoke from cannabis suppresses the immune system in the mouth. The more bacteria in your mouth the higher chance of developing cavities.
How Marijuana Smokers Can Practice Good Oral Hygiene Habits
If you smoke pot regularly, it’s important to be aware of the negative impacts it can have on your oral health including:
- Bad breath
- Increased bacteria in your mouth
- Tooth decay
- Periodontal disease
- Stained teeth
Now that you are aware of the potential negative effects of marijuana on your oral health, there are things you can do to minimize the impact:
- Stay hydrated – Drink lots of water throughout the day. Drinking water will keep your mouth hydrated even when your salivary glands are under-functioning when you smoke pot. This can help combat dry mouth.
- Brush and floss daily – As a marijuana smoker, you must be more diligent than others when caring for your teeth at home. You should brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist if a prescription-strength toothpaste would be good for you. Your gum tissue will stay healthier if you floss daily. Swishing a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 8 oz. of warm water in your mouth and over your teeth can help remove the sticky film left by marijuana smoke. Brushing thoroughly right after smoking is important to minimize the negative effects.
- Reduce sugary and processed snacks – Keep in mind that the more sugary and processed snacks you reach for to satiate your appetite will contribute to tooth decay. Try to select tooth-healthier options. Staying away from sugary and caffeinated beverages will help you stay hydrated because it won’t interfere with proper saliva production.
- Get a dental exam – At least twice a year, more if recommended by your dentist, you should get a professional cleaning and dental exam.
- Talk to your dentist – If you regularly smoke marijuana, your dental professionals will help you understand how marijuana may be affecting your oral health so you can make informed decisions and take preventative measures to minimize negative effects.
It’s important to be open with your dentist regarding your lifestyle so that they can advise and inform you about the best way to keep your mouth and teeth healthy and so they can provide the care you need. Although more research needs to be done on the effects of edible marijuana products, currently it appears that the majority of the negative oral effects are caused by smoking pot. Therefore, consuming edibles as an alternative to smoking pot might be a good strategy to protect your oral health. Along with brushing, flossing and rinsing daily, be sure to schedule your regular teeth cleaning and dental exam today.