Need a drink after a rough day? Is it “beer-thirty” yet? Are you meeting colleagues for an adult beverage at the local happy hour? Have you been to Napa and Sonoma so many times that you’ve started a wine journal? Alcohol has become a regular facet in the lives of many adults. To call it a “social lubricant” wouldn’t be far from the truth, and it’s also one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world. As the science journal Nature points out, “Alcohol has been linked to many oral health effects. These include oral cancer, caries, periodontal disease, halitosis, tooth wear, staining and trauma. Alcohol also has many other wider effects on the general, social and psychological health of patients, which can influence dental treatment.”
The Effects of Alcohol on Oral Hygiene
Drugs like alcohol and caffeine remain mildly psychotropic substances by classification, but they have become highly normalized in society over a long and rich history of use. “Known to mankind for several centuries, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine have become an important part of culture, serving as a vehicle for social Interaction, shaping the urban landscape with dedicated places – from the Ottoman coffeehouse to the German Brauhaus and the Parisian café – stimulating the opening of international trade routes and bringing substantial tax revenues to governments,” wrote Dr. Marc-Antoine Crocq in an academic medical report for Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2003 Jun; 5(2): 175–185. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2003.5.2/macrocq).
Although alcohol is not categorized as a “hard drug,” it shares many of the same properties with those illicit substances in relation to oral health. Drugs often cause users to crave sugar. Methamphetamine and heroin lead to dry mouth, which reduces the flow of saliva and increases the risks of tooth decay and gum disease. Bruxism is often a byproduct of taking ecstasy and cocaine. Teeth grinding elevates the chances for cracked or broken teeth. And the euphoric state, or “high,” produced by these substances can make people forget to brush and floss.
With alcohol, the dental effects aren’t much different. “Alcoholic drinks such as white wine, beer and cider can be very acidic,” the Oral Health Foundation explained. “This will cause erosion of the enamel on your teeth, possibly leading to pain and sensitivity. Spirits such as vodka and whiskey are very high in alcohol and will give you dry mouth. Many mixers and alcopops are high in sugar. This can cause dental decay.”
Let’s break this down a bit further.
- When drinking anything acidic, your teeth come under what the Oral Health Foundation refers to as an “acid attack.” During this time, the enamel is weakened and the mouth attempts to produce more saliva to restore a neutral pH level. However, with alcohol restricting the flow of saliva, teeth remain under attack for longer periods of time.
- Many alcoholic concoctions contain sugar, which react with the bacteria in your mouth to produce acids. These acids cause dental decay.
- The sensation of being tipsy or outright drunk can incapacitate people, similar to other drugs, which can also hinder a person from remembering to brush and floss.
Preventing Substance-related Oral Health Problems
Potent potables are proven problems for dental health, but an ounce of prevention still goes a long way in combating the ill effects of a dram of your favorite spirit. Of course, reducing the intake of alcohol and drugs is always the first recommendation. Here are some other steps people can take to maintain good oral hygiene practices.
- Brush at least twice a day, performing the second cleaning at the end of your night.
- Use a toothpaste that contains between 1350 and 1500 ppm (parts per million) of fluoride.
- Do not brush your teeth for one hour after eating or drinking. Brushing before this time may remove small particles of softened enamel, which leads to dental erosion.
- Clean in between teeth at least once a day using floss, interdental brushes, or tape.
- Alcohol-free mouthwashes with antibacterial properties and fluoride are recommended.
See Your Dentist and Talk to Your Dentist
Keeping a bright and healthy smile requires more than good daily habits – you also need to visit your dentist every 6 months. For people at higher risks of oral diseases caused by alcohol or drugs, it’s also imperative to discuss usage honestly with your dentist. Levels of consumption are crucial factors in prevention and treatment. Dentists record this information in their charts and provide appropriate feedback or advice to patients. Withholding vital details such as these could exacerbate serious health risks like oral cancer, which can be fatal if detection, monitoring, or treatment are delayed.