It turns out that cannabis can negatively affect your mouth, in addition to your waistline.
While eating lots of junk food – otherwise known as “the munchies” – is one well-known side effect of getting high, the potential damage that pot can do to teeth and gums is less known and less amusing.
“Cannabis causes dry mouth, and dry mouth will cause a patient to get cavities,” said Dr. Barry Taylor DMD; Dentist, Assistant Professor at Oregon Health & Science University, and a member of the American Dental Association.
Saliva helps to wash away food debris and reduce plaque on teeth. Dry mouth – clinically known as xerostomia, and colloquially known as cotton mouth by seasoned smokers – often accompanies marijuana use. If you experience dry mouth on a regular basis, dental studies show that it can lead to tooth decay and gum disease over time.
Another side effect of pot use can compound those oral health problems.
“On top of it, there is the craving for food,” Taylor said. “Marijuana increases dopamine, which makes sweet foods sweeter.”
The pleasure from this food also keeps you eating them.
Then there are edibles, which can come in the form of cookies, candies, brownies or other sweet treats, so they’re a major sugar source themselves.
Despite this, Taylor says it is still less harmful on your mouth to eat marijuana than to smoke it.
“If you smoke it, it still has carcinogens in it similar to cigarettes,” he said.
As for whether cannabis use causes mouth cancer, Dr. Taylor says there is no conclusive evidence at this time to link the two. Some forms of oral cancer are fairly rare so there have not been enough studies to definitively link it to marijuana use.
There is evidence to support is that heavy users of marijuana experience more oral health issues than those who don’t use, or who only use occasionally or weekends only.
“There are some studies that show that heavy users of marijuana tend to visit the dentist less often,” he said.
Taylor says this could be for a number of reasons.
He says the heaviest cannabis users tend to be males between the age of 18 and 25, although he has observed lately that the gender gap appears to be closing. Men in that age range tend to practice less preventative health practices and regular home dental care than people in other age demographics.
In his work at Oregon Health & Science University, Taylor encourages dentists he works with to start the conversation with their patients about marijuana use and oral health. Much like doctors ask patients about their eating, drinking and drug habits, he wants dentists to ask if their patients use cannabis, and how much.
“It’s like alcohol or anything else, it’s being conscious of your home care,” he said. “Without talking to them about it, they’re not going to know that dry mouth causes cavities.”
Dentists who know their patients use pot regularly or occasionally can warn them about potential impacts to their teeth and mouth, that edibles can cause less harm than smoking, and that they need to watch their diet, particularly when it comes to eating sweets while high.
Additionally, Taylor would like patients to tell their dentists if they are cannabis users, even if the dentist doesn’t ask, so they receive the best care.
In particular, he asks that patients say something if they come actively under the influence of cannabis – not just because certain sedatives can work differently on people under the influence, but also because the unexpected could happen.
“Particularly if they’ve done an edible,” he said. “Because edibles are less predictable than smoking. Smoking hits you right away, but you don’t always know what to expect from edibles.”
Tracy Damon is a Spokane-based freelancer who has been writing professionally for 20 years. She has been covering i502 issues since recreational cannabis became legal in Washington.