Monday, January 10, 2005

Meth users can look forward to gumming their food

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January 10, 2005


MINNEAPOLIS -- After more than a decade of drug abuse, Darren Zigas is now facing what could be seen as the expected consequences of his methamphetamine addiction: prison time, alienation from friends and family, and a rap sheet filled with convictions for assault, terroristic threats and burglary.

But at 32 years old, he's also facing another consequence: a lifetime without a tooth in his mouth.

As the number of regular users of the illegal drug methamphetamine has increased, so has a peculiar set of dental problems linked to the drug, a phenomenon named ''meth mouth.'' Symptoms include gum disease, broken and cracked teeth, and tooth decay.

Growing prison problem

Zigas' condition was so bad that he once bit into a peanut butter sandwich and left teeth in the bread. In June 2002, malnourished and down to 150 pounds, he had his remaining teeth pulled.

His dental problem is not only his own now, but the State of Minnesota's as well. In the Lino Lakes prison for a 2002 conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine, Zigas had dentures made for him four months ago by a state dentist.

With the burgeoning use of methamphetamine, a ripple effect has flooded the state's court systems and now its prison population. A quarter of all state inmates now are drug offenders, half of them for methamphetamine.

Incarcerating drug offenders brings with it traditional costs, including rehabilitation and health expenses from years of abuse. But one of the unexpected results of the methamphetamine explosion is the demand for dental care from those behind bars.

And because of the demand for emergency and urgent care from the methamphetamine users, it can now be up to a year's wait for other inmates to get routine dental care from one of the 10 dentists across the state's prison system.

Drug's merciless effects

Authorities say they believe several factors contribute to meth mouth. The drug often produces anxiety levels and paranoia that can contribute to teeth grinding and gnashing. Many abusers also have a dry mouth, and the absence of saliva can exacerbate the acidic nature of methamphetamine if it is smoked or snorted.

''When I was smoking it, I could feel the slime on my teeth,'' Zigas recalled.

One offshoot of methamphetamine abuse also appears to be insatiable appetite for high-caffeine, high-sugar sodas, particularly Mountain Dew. That can combine with the frenetic nature of the drug, letting users go for long periods without good hygiene.

While there are no fancy crown and bridge restorations, there is a debate about what level of dental care to provide offenders, particularly in a period of increased prison populations and budget demands, said Nanette Schroeder, director of health services for the state Corrections Department.

''Should we be providing them with dentures so that when they go to apply for a job they at least have a decent smile? Even as a team, we couldn't come to an agreement as to whether or not that was something the state should be doing,'' she said.

Scripps Howard News Service

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