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.

One bit of good news? Beginning July 1, 2019, the minimum age to purchase or possess tobacco products in Virginia will change from 18 to 21.

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.

We originally published this in January 2019 and updated it in June 2019.

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Comments (3)

  1. F68.10 says:

    “Nicotine can be especially addictive for young people, since their brains are still developing.”

    I’m sorry, that’s a non-sequitur. Both sides of the sentence may both be facts, the relation between the two is completely unfounded as far as I can see.

    • Hi! Thanks for your reply. Here are some additional supporting documents if you’d like to read more about how the teen brain can be particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction:

      From US National Library of Medicine, NIH: Nicotine and the adolescent brain
      From Yale Medicine: Nicotine Addiction From Vaping Is a Bigger Problem Than Teens Realize
      From Smokefree.gov: Nicotine & Addiction

      I particularly found Yale Medicine’s explanation interesting, as it focuses on the processes in the rewards center of the brain: “So, why is nicotine so addictive for teens? Nicotine can spell trouble at any life stage, but it is particularly dangerous before the brain is fully developed, which happens around age 25…A key reason for this is that ‘the adolescent brain is more sensitive to rewards.’”

      I hope that helps! Thanks for reaching out!

  2. F68.10 says:

    The NIH article is too “complex” in my opinion to be able to make a blunt statement without discussing specific quotations in detail. I cannot go in a detailed discussion of each one of them in a comment section. It would therefore be better if you could isolate a specific quote that explains the inference between “still developing brain” (I tend to dislike this kind of description, as everyone is “still developing” up to the point they die, so to me it carries unduly a negative connotation) and increased susceptibility to nicotine addiction. A quote would be welcome. Specifically if it can support the Yale Medicine claim that “the adolescent brain is more sensitive to rewards” (which is a more specific and objective and less value-laden description than “still developing”).

    However, in the broad scope of policy making, there is still a gap to bridge when it comes to banning e-cigarettes, in the sense that a policy (like banning e-cigarettes) should be judged on objective goals (not merely addiction, which in itself is a value-neutral concept, but quality-adjusted life-years for a better and more objective criterion, which should take into account ultimately the fact that e-cigarettes are tar-free). Merely claiming higher susceptibility to addiction may be a scaring perspective but should not on its own be considered meeting the burden of proof.

    There are 13 matches for the keyword “reward” in the NIH article. The closest (I may be mistaken) that matches what I perceive to be your claim is the following sentence including the “reward” keyword: “nAChRs are widely distributed in neuroanatomical areas implicated in tobacco addiction (Gotti & Clementi, 2004), and nAChR activation in these regions regulates monoamine neurotransmitter systems, particularly dopamine, which is strongly implicated in reward processing and drug reinforcement (Gotti et al. 2006; Albuquerque et al. 2009).”

    This only supports the link between nicotine and the reward system, which seems to me well-known. There are other quotes supporting different “maturation” status of the reward system. Which is hardly surprising as such:

    “These findings indicate a functional switch in reward processing during adolescent development mediated by dopamine regulation of GABA interneurons (Fig. 4).”

    However, in this review of the literature, you do not have quantitative measurements of the qualitative claims. So it’s a bit tough to assess what the scope of altered susceptibility to nicotine really is.

    Moreover there is also an underlying fallacy in the juxtaposition of the two claims mentioned in the previous paragraphs, which I’ll illustrate with another example: it is well known that bigger brains are correlated to higher IQ. It is also well known that males have bigger brains than females. Intuitively, juxtaposing these two claims, we should feel entitled to claim that males have higher IQ than females. Which is false. Juxtaposing the two claims of the previous paragraphs puts one at risk of committing such a fallacy, and I have not seen that NIH literature review has not committed this fallacy.

    I think there is a fundamental misconception of the role of the science when it comes to policymaking here. Whether or not the brain is “immature” is besides the point (and plays unduly with the fears of the parents, which in my opinion is immoral). A better question would be whether or not adolescents get hooked more easily than adults. The answer is likely yes, but I’d still like solid evidence. An even better question would be, on a policy level, whether or not you epidemiologically get more addiction to nicotine if e-cigarettes are banned. The answer will probably be unconvincing. An even better question would be whether quality-adjusted life-years change for the better if e-cigarettes are banned (which should be the REAL questions parents should be concerned with).

    And that last question boils down to toxicity, not of nicotine itself, but of e-cigarettes compared to cigarettes, essentially.

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