As e-cigarette use among teens hits epidemic proportions, parents should know their children face multiple health problems from using the popular device that puts high doses of nicotine into the body.
“Nicotine raises blood pressure, spikes adrenaline levels, increases heart rate and, in people at risk, increases the chance of a heart attack,” said Dr. Marc Chester of Novant Health Pediatric Pulmonology.
“It’s important for parents to know and understand why e-cigarettes are harmful and to have those conversations with their children,” Chester said. “I used to get asked about vaping a couple of days out of the month, but now parents are asking about vaping weekly.”
E-cigarettes — also called vape pens, tank systems and mods — are battery-operated devices that heat up a cartridge containing a liquid and then turns it into an aerosol that users inhale. The liquid typically has flavoring, additives and the same addictive nicotine found in cigarettes.
E-cigarettes have a higher concentration of nicotine. A single Juul, one of the most commonly sold e-cigarettes, cartridge can have as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes making them much more addictive. A cartridge usually lasts about 200 puffs, the equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.
In North Carolina, it’s illegal for people under 18 to use e-cigarettes. But as the case with tobacco, teens find a way around the age requirements and still get their hands on e-cigarettes.
Delay in brain development
Nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain, Chester said. The brain keeps developing until about age 25.
“Nicotine causes the release of dopamine in the brain, which causes a feeling of pleasure making it very addictive,” Chester said. “Current research questions whether nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.”
E-cigarette use is associated with the start and misuse of other tobacco products that can cause even more damage to the body. Studies have shown that e-cigarette use has acted as a gateway substance to other forms of tobacco, alcohol and other substances.
“Using nicotine in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control,” Chester said.
Synapses, new connections in the brain, are made every time a memory or skill is learned. “Young people’s brains build synapses faster than adult brains,” Chester said. “Nicotine may change the way these synapses are formed leading to cognitive issues.”
While e-cigarettes contain different compounds than cigarettes, Chester said, it doesn’t mean they are safer.
One ingredient, propylene glycol, (largely responsible for making users’ breath look like a cloud of mist) is found in fog machines used at concerts and has been linked to chronic lung problems among stagehands.
It’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food — frequently found in pre-made cake mix — but when heated to vaping temperatures it can produce the carcinogen formaldehyde.
The danger goes further than the chemical compounds. Some studies have found the vapor produced by e-cigarettes often contains tiny particles of lead, nickel, tin and silver from the machinery inside the devices that can get stuck in a user’s lungs.
E-cigarettes not only harm users, but bystanders as well. Bystanders breathing in secondhand e-cigarette smoke run the risk of breathing in heavy metals, dangerous chemical compounds and ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deeply into the lungs, Chester said.
“Because e-cigarettes are still fairly new, the available research on long-term effects of e-cigarette use is limited,” Chester said. “The research that is available shows detrimental effects to people’s health.”
There is a concern, he added, that e-cigarettes can cause the same amount of damage as cigarettes, if not more.
Chester stressed the importance of education for parents when it comes to e-cigarettes.
Parents should also learn about the different shapes and types of e-cigarettes. Many of the new e-cigarettes look like a USB flash drive making it easier to hide.
“Parents should intervene if their child is vaping before they cause any more harm to their body,” Chester said. “We don’t know the long-term ramifications, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to fix the issues when they start showing up.”
To learn more about the effects of e-cigarette use among youth, schedule an appointment today with your child’s pediatrician or primary care physician. Click here to find a provider near you.