Recently you’ve been hearing and reading reports about illnesses and deaths linked to using electronic cigarettes or vaping.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released these figures: There have been 530 cases of lung injury reported in 38 states and 1 U.S. territory. Seven deaths have been attributed to this in six states.
Doctors are starting to see patients going to the emergency room because of lung injuries after vaping. Sometimes, these patients are coming in with symptoms that can be confused with something like pneumonia, but the symptoms also include things that wouldn’t be pneumonia. Symptoms include cough, headache, fatigue and chills, as well as nausea and vomiting.
One challenge is that we’re not really sure whether it’s the substance in the e-cigarette itself or whether it’s the act of inhaling a vapor into the lungs or both. E-cigarettes can have all kinds of things in them, from nicotine to THC (the chemical in marijuana that gets you high). They also can have flavorings or something as dangerous and unexpected as formaldehyde.
“It’s really hard to know what each one has and how they really impact our bodies,” says Dr. Kavita Patel, a pediatric pulmonologist at Texas Children’s Hospital Specialty Care in Austin, Texas.
Patel also worries about teens and preteens using substances like nicotine and THC because they are highly addictive and this is a time when teens’ brains are still being shaped.
“The other substances, we don’t know enough about it,” says Dr. Mai Duong, chief of pediatrics at Austin Regional Clinic.
“Even the flavorings are harmful,” Patel says. The act of vaping means that very tiny particles are getting into the smallest spaces of the lungs, potentially deeper than where cigarette smoke reaches, Patel says.
Vaping was marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but that’s not proving to be true, Patel says, with people showing up in the emergency room and even dying.
“It’s a really scary time,” Patel says.
Parents can be on the lookout for some signs that their kids are vaping. Who are their friends? Are their friends vaping? Do you go into their room and smell something sweet? Do you see something that looks like a pen or a flash drive or lipstick or an asthma inhaler that you don’t recognize? The tough thing with vaping is that it’s easier to hide than cigarettes and marijuana use, Patel says.
Duong is talking to her teen patients about the use of alcohol and tobacco and drug use as she always has, but now, she says, she’s focusing a little more on talking about vaping, too.
Parents should talk to their kids about vaping, and it’s not a one-time conversation. “It’s more effective if it comes up organically,” Duong says. If you drive by a vape shop or see someone vaping, that’s the perfect time to talk about it. Family dinners also could be an opportunity for conversation.
Instead of lecturing, Duong suggests asking open-ended questions and being nonjudgmental.
Duong warns against trying to scare kids. For example, if you say, “It could kill you,” and then they try it a few times and it doesn’t kill them, well, what you said wasn’t true in that instance.
“Stick with the facts,” she says. Talk about potential harm. Talk about the reality that they might not know what they are inhaling. “People are stealing embalming fluid from the mortuary,” Duong says. “You really don’t know what’s in it.”
Duong also recommends these tips to be ready to talk to kids:
- Study up. Start by learning more about vaping, types of e-cigarettes and the associated risks. Learn the language, too, to see if words like “Juuling” or “juicing” pop up in your teen’s conversations.
- Make time to talk. The sooner you start talking, the better — with an emphasis on the word “start.” Don’t view this discussion as a one-time occurrence. Bring up the topic again afterward and often, as you see or hear new developments on the topic.
- Listen, don’t lecture. Hear your teen’s perspective. See what they already know — or believe is true. Foster discussion with succinct comments and a lot of give and take. Try starting with an open-ended question such as “What do you think about vaping?”
- Stick to facts. Just saying that vaping is bad for you usually isn’t effective. During your research, accumulate data, experts’ evidence-based conclusions and how it makes sense to abstain.
- Teach them how to say no. When they are offered opportunities to vape, do they know how to respond? Practice with them. Pretend you’re a classmate offering them an e-cigarette. Try to come up with several responses.
- Acknowledge your limits. You know you can’t monitor them all the time. Why not make them feel empowered in a positive way? Consider saying something like, “You need to decide for yourself.”
- Be an example. If you use tobacco products, it is not too late to quit.