Teens & Vaping: What to Watch for and How to Talk with Your Kids

teens using a vaping device
In 2018, 4.9 percent of middle-schoolers and 20.8 percent of high-schoolers reported they had used electronic cigarettes in the past month.

It’s hard to scroll through news headlines lately without seeing a headline about teens and vaping, or “juuling,” as it’s sometimes called. Vaping, or the use of electronic smoking devices (also “e-cigarettes” or “e-cigs”), is becoming an epidemic among teens in the U.S. According to the CDC, 4.9 percent of middle-schoolers and 20.8 percent of high-schoolers reported in 2018 that they had used electronic cigarettes in the past month.

The Dangers of Teen Vape Use

According to UVA Cancer Center tobacco treatment specialist Neely Dahl, many teens and young adults just don’t know what’s in the devices they use. The word “vapor” makes it sound safer than it is. In reality, it’s nothing like harmless water vapor.

E-cigs are battery-operated devices that turn a liquid (“e-liquids” or “vape juice” or “e-juice”) into an aerosol (not a vapor) for users to inhale. The liquid typically contains nicotine in addition to other chemicals and flavorings. Vaping can also be used with marijuana and other drugs.

Nicotine can be especially addictive for young people, since their brains are still developing. In fact, youth who vape are four times more likely to pick up a lit cigarette habit.

In addition to inhaling nicotine and other chemicals, even tiny particles of the metals that make up the device’s heating unit are inhaled deep into the lungs when someone vapes. “We don’t know yet what the long-term effects of inhaling these compounds will be, but one could imagine if inhaling small metal particulate matter into our lungs for a long period of time, the health outcomes will not be good,” Dahl says.

What to Watch For: 6 Signs Your Teen is Vaping

One major issue with vaping is that parents, teachers and school administrators have a hard time knowing when kids are actually doing it. Many of the vaping devices look like everyday objects that would be used for another purpose. And since there’s no smoke, it’s hard to catch kids in the act. The aerosol also dissipates quickly and leaves no residue.

It’s hard to tell if your child is vaping, but these signs may help you figure it out:

  1. Unusual items. Some vaping devices resemble common items like USB drives and pens so they may not be that easy to spot, but they usually have holes on each end. They can also look like more traditional smoking devices. Keep an eye out for refill pods, atomizers and cartridges, which some vaping devices use, and batteries that require recharging. Organic cotton balls and thin metallic coils are other components used when vaping. Vaping devices can also be hidden inside of common items like highlighters.
  2. Sweet smell. Although odorless and scented liquids can be used in electronic smoking devices, many teens choose scented vapor. The most popular flavors are sweet so you may notice an unusually sweet smell, although it goes away quickly.
  3. Changes in thirst and taste. The process of vaping makes users’ mouths dry. So if you see kids drinking more than usual, it may be a sign they’re vaping. A dry mouth also makes food taste less flavorful, so if your child is using more spices or salt, that may also be a clue.
  4. Nosebleeds. Not only does the mouth get dry when vaping but so does the inside of the nose as the vapor is exhaled through the nostrils. This can result in nosebleeds.
  5. Less need for caffeine. Vaping causes some people to be more sensitive to caffeine. If your teen is skipping the daily caffeine fix, it may be time to look for other signs of vaping.
  6. Unexplained cough, throat-clearing or mouth sores. Researchers have linked vaping to mouth wounds that won’t heal and a smoker’s-like cough.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Vaping

According to Dahl, the best approach to avoiding teen vape use is to educate your kids when they’re young, before they’ve even been exposed to or offered a vape. Dahl says vape use is even rising among middle schoolers. So, the earlier you can start having these conversations, the better.

Vaping isn’t just dangerous for youth.

Read about the dangers of adult vaping.

Help your children understand the facts about what people inhale when they use vaping devices. You can share easy-to-understand resources with them, like this one from the Centers for Disease Control. Dahl also recommends keeping lines of communication open by asking your kids what they’re seeing at school and how they feel about it.

If you’ve found a vaping device of your child’s, or caught them vaping, Dahl says the best course of action is to stay calm rather than shame your child.

“You can’t make them stop. Especially with teenagers, forbidding them from doing something is likely to make them want to do it even more. Instead, invite them to sit down and discuss vaping and the dangers of what its ingredients can do to their bodies. Let it be a dialogue,” she says.

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