Now that adolescents are more likely to vape than smoke cigarettes, it might not be quite as easy for parents to spot (or smell) the warning signs that their teens are using nicotine.
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Electronic cigarettes are often easy-to-hide devices that produce a pleasant odor that fades quickly. So if you’re worried that your teen might be using them, your best bet is to start a conversation.
According to 2018 data from FDA, one in five high schoolers in the U.S. has vaped at least once in the last 30 days.
While the long-term health effects of vaping aren’t yet clear, recent reports of hundreds of cases of vaping-related lung illness have many parents on high alert.
Pulmonologist and smoking cessation specialist Humberto Choi, MD, recommends that every parent have an open and honest conversation about vaping with their teenager. Even if your child isn’t vaping, chances are they know someone who is or will be offered an opportunity to try it.
What do we know about the dangers of vaping?
Since vaping hasn’t been around for very long, scientific studies haven’t yet been able to determine its long-term health effects and whether it can lead to emphysema, heart disease or cancer like smoking can.
But short-term effects are starting to come to light. In the recent outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, hundreds of people in the U.S. have been admitted to hospitals with coughing, breathing complications and wheezing due to lung inflammation.
In many — but not all — of these cases of illness, patients reported that they vaped THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Studies have found that e-cigarette juice can contain a number of other ingredients that may irritate the lungs, including:
- Chemical flavorings.
- Propylene glycol.
“I think all of these cases prove a point that vaping is not safe,” Dr. Choi says. “We don’t know exactly if there’s any single agent or substance that’s responsible for all of these diseases, but what they have in common is vaping itself.”
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Turning your concerns into conversations
“Something that concerns me is the fact that many people using e-cigarettes are very young, so they’re very susceptible to addiction,” Dr. Choi notes.
Because parts of the brain are still developing during adolescence, exposure to nicotine during these years can be damaging. Research has shown that smoking during adolescence puts a person more at risk for memory and attention problems, as well as mental and behavioral issues later in life.
When you talk to your teen about the dangers of vaping, try to understand and address the different factors that might motivate them to try it. (Peer pressure? Stress? Wanting to look more grown up?)
Ask what they know about vaping and clear up any misconceptions they might have. Then ask if they’ve seen friends or classmates do it, and how they feel about it. Talk through good ways to respond if they ever feel pressured to try it.
If you feel like you’re not getting through to them, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask your child’s doctor to discuss it with them at their next appointment.
What if they’re already vaping?
Signs your teen is vaping might include:
- A sweet smell in areas where they’ve been.
- Problems with concentration.
- Not performing as well as they used to in school.
- Needing to step out of the room frequently.
Unfortunately, experts aren’t yet sure what the best method is to help people quit e-cigarettes, Dr. Choi says. But he recommends starting with counseling.
“The way we approach these patients will likely be similar to how we approach a cigarette smoker, but with some adaptation to adjust to the habits,” he says.
By that, he’s referring to the fact that smokers go through cigarettes one by one. They have to go somewhere, light the cigarette and then finish it. People who vape, on the other hand, are continuously inhaling nicotine throughout the day. So the strategies for quitting may need to be tweaked.
An even better option? Giving teens information and support that could help prevent them from starting in the first place. Dr. Choi offers a final thought: “The lungs were made to breathe clean air, and that’s what we should be doing.”