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The body on meth: beauty meets the beast

WORTHINGTON -- Lye, anti-freeze, rubbing alcohol, muriatic acid, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate and lithium batteries.

WORTHINGTON -- Lye, anti-freeze, rubbing alcohol, muriatic acid, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate and lithium batteries.

While these don't sound like chemicals anyone would want to ingest, when mixed with cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine -- along with a few other ingredients -- meth addicts can cook up the drug in the comfort of their own home.

Mixing chemicals and cooking meth, however, come with a wide array of dangers, and the health impact caused by ingesting the drug can be astounding.

Among the most-used images of meth's impact on a body is a California woman's metamorphosis spanning 10 years, from her photo in November 1979 to her January 1989 mugshot. But lately, a new crop of photos is starting to make the rounds -- images aptly referred to as "Meth Mouth."

A Worthington dentist is all too familiar with the look of meth mouth, although the patients she works on never admit their teeth are decayed and deteriorating as a result of the drug's use.

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"Drug use causes loss of tooth structure differently, depending on the type of drug involved and the habits associated with drug use," said Dr. Maureen Sorensen, who provides dental care to inmates at Prairie Justice Center in Worthington. "Snorting methamphetamine can cause the front upper teeth to be heavily worn and decayed."

Meth use can affect an addict's teeth in a number of ways, ranging from dry mouth to clenching or grinding the teeth. Those ac-tions can last hours after the mental effects of the drug have subsided, Sorensen said. Oftentimes, the addict will consume large amounts of carbohydrates or carbonated beverages to ward off dry mouth.

"Mountain Dew contains approximately 11 teaspoons of sugar per can and has a pH of 3.22," said Sorensen. In comparison, bat-tery acid has a pH of 1 and water is 7.

"Usually tooth brushing and other hygiene issues are also neglected," she added. "This combination of habits contributes to nu-merous decayed and broken teeth."

In looking at a photo of "meth mouth," Sorensen said all of the teeth were filled with cavities. While the appearance of the teeth can be described as blackened, stained, rotting and crumbling or broken off at the gums, the roots remain.

"The cavity takes over the tooth and leaves a stub," she said. "They might all be infected, but only one will hurt."

Sorensen said when that tooth begins to hurt while the addict is in jail, she is called in to pull the aching tooth.

"The county takes care of the tooth in pain, that's it," she added. The only solution to fixing a person's meth mouth is to fit them with dentures -- a cost neither the jail nor the addict is willing to pay for.

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Federal prisons, on the other hand, may have different policies, Sorensen said. They also have on-site dentistry available.

Body boils and tremors

Narcotics investigators with the Nobles County Sheriff's Office and Worthington Police Department know all too well the impact meth has on a person. Through drug investigations and interviews with addicts, they see many of the symptoms associated with the drug's use.

Short-term effects of the drug range from aggressive behavior to paranoia, uncontrolled movements, increased heart rate and loss of appetite, while long-term, the meth user can suffer from fatal kidney and lung disorders to brain and liver damage, depression and permanent psychological problems.

"These people are just skin and bones," added a WPD narcotics investigator. Complete identities of the investigators and staff at the Prairie Justice Center are being withheld from this article for security purposes.

While a depressed appetite is one of the signs of meth use, the condition of the user's teeth will also impact what, and how much, they eat.

"We're seeing people drop a lot of weight," said Linda, a nurse at the Prairie Justice Center. She added that she's seen some people lose anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds in a five-month period. "That's a lot -- especially if they don't have it to lose to begin with."

In addition to weight loss, the appearance of acne sores or open wounds is also a common sign of meth use.

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Meth sores can be found on any part of an addict's body, though most visible are those on the face or arms. The sores are usually a result of an addict's paranoia that bugs are crawling all over his body. The paranoia leads to constant scratching, open wounds and, in some cases, infection.

In his presentation to Luverne Middle School students Monday, retired Omaha police officer Chuck Matson described the scene of a paranoid meth addict who thought spiders were crawling all over his skin. While shopping, the addict took a can of Raid off the shelf and began spraying himself down -- right there in the middle of the store.

While that may sound extreme, the meth addict and his symptoms cannot be overlooked.

"They are very paranoid as far as their personality," said Linda. "They are paranoid about being around other people and who they can trust. If they come in high on meth, they're paranoid to be with the general population -- they think others are out to get them."

One of the first steps in treating the addict's health when they arrive in jail is to complete an assessment. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorders are among the most prevalent among addicts.

"The addiction comes first, and if they're supposed to be on any kind of medications for health issues, they're very non-compliant with it," said Linda. "A lot of them need to be on psychotropic medications. There's a lot more mental health issues that need to be addressed then, too."

In the three years she's worked at the jail, Linda said she's seen an increase in the number of inmates using meth. That rise di-rectly correlates with increased health-related costs in the jail -- especially in the arena of prescription medications.

"It definitely has increased the cost of the pharmacy bill, I know that," said Linda. "The psychotropic medications are extremely expensive. A lot of (meth users) need to be on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety (medications)."

In addition to medications, there's the cost of antibiotics, bandages and general treatment.

"There is a health risk to other inmates and correction officers, too," said Linda. "With open sores, there's always the concern of the spread of disease and infection."

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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