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Substance Use Disorders in the Dental Practice

Research tells us that dentists are no more—or less—likely to develop substance use disorders (alcohol or drug abuse or dependence) than the general population. In other words, 10–15 percent of dentists will have a drug and/or alcohol problem sometime in their lives.

Substance use disorders are part of the human condition, and touch as many as one in four American families.

What is different for dentists and other health professionals than for the general population is the public trust that goes with the privilege to practice, and the responsibility to obey the state dental practice acts and controlled substance regulations.

An untreated substance use disorder in a dentist can not only threaten the dentist's life and family stability, but place patients, and the practice itself, in jeopardy.

What is Moderate and Binge Drinking

Moderate or "low-risk" drinking

Research shows that people who drink moderately may be less likely to experience an alcohol use disorder (AUD). These drinking levels, which differ for men and women, are:

For men: No more than 4 drinks on any single day AND no more than 14 drinks per week

For women: No more than 3 drinks on any single day AND no more than 7 drinks per week

To stay low risk for AUDs, you must keep within both the single-day and weekly limits.

Even within these limits, you can have problems if you drink too quickly or have other health issues. To keep your risk for problems low, make sure you:

  • Drink slowly
  • Eat enough while drinking

Certain people should avoid alcohol completely, including those who:

  • Plan to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
  • Take medications that interact with alcohol
  • Have a medical condition that alcohol can aggravate
  • Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant

Heavy or “at-risk” drinking

For healthy adults in general, heavy drinking means consuming more than the single-day or the weekly amounts listed above.  About 1 in 4 people who drink above these levels already has alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse problems.

Binge drinking

Binge drinking means drinking so much within about 2 hours that blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels reach 0.08g/dL. For women, this usually occurs after about 4 drinks, and for men, after about 5.

Drinking this way can pose health and safety risks, including car crashes and injuries. Over the long term, binge drinking can damage the liver and other organs.

Assistance Services for Dentists

Services are available in most states for dentists at risk of or experiencing impairment. Contact information is available by calling 202.898.2410, or the member toll-free number, ext. 2410, or by email to All inquiries are confidential.

Resources for State Dentist Well-Being Programs

Voices of Experience

Read dentists' stories in these articles from the Michigan Dental Association Journal. All of these articles are available in Adobe PDF format and will open in a separate browser window.

ADA Opioid Webinar Series Upcoming and Archived Webinar can be found here

Additional Opioid Prescribing Resources

ADA Advocacy Issues: Opioid Crisis 

The Journal of the American Dental Association

For more information on the grant or the webinars, contact Alison Bramhall by calling 202.898.2410 or via email at

ADA Resources

The ADA Practical Guide to Substance Use Disorders and Safe Prescribing

ADA Current Policies

This downloadable document contains major policies adopted by the American Dental Association House of Delegates from 1954 through 2005 that are still in effect in 2006, except for policies that appear in the Association's Constitution and Bylaws and Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct.

Under the heading Dentist Health and Well-Being you will find:

  • Dentist Health and Wellness
  • Substance Abuse Among Dentists
  • Substance Use Among Dental Students
  • Guiding Principles for Dentist Well-Being Activities at the State Level.

Under Substance Use Disorders you will find:

  • Use of Opioids in the Treatment of Dental Pain
  • Alcoholism and Other Substance Use Disorders
  • Provision of Dental Treatment for Patients with Substance Use Disorders
  • Alcohol and Substance Use by Pregnant and Postpartum Patients
  • Guidelines Related to Alcohol, Nicotine, and/or Drug Use by Child or Adolescent Patients

ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct

It is unethical to practice dentistry while under the influence of substances that impair the ability to practice. Dentists who have firsthand knowledge of a colleague's impairment are also under an ethical obligation—and in some cases, a legal obligation—to report the colleague to a dentist assistance program or the state licensing board. Get more information.

Related links

Additional Information

Alcoholism/Substance Abuse

Drug-Free Workplace