E-cigarettes Harmful to Teens and Young Adults

By Dr. Liz Donner, Pediatric Hospital Medicine Fellow, Baylor College of Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

Serious lung disease associated with e-cigarette use is on the rise. The CDC released a health advisory on August 30 reporting 215 cases of lung disease associated with e-cigarette use. Users have experienced cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, and/or weight loss. Symptoms typically develop over days to weeks. Outcomes include the need for oxygen supplementation, intubation, and even death.

E-cigarettes are commonly called “e-cigs,” “vapes,” “e-hookahs,” “vape pens,” and “electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).” E-cigarettes can look like regular cigarettes, cigars, pipes, USB flash drives, pens, or other everyday items. They are battery-powered devices that can deliver flavorful nicotine, marijuana, THC, synthetic cannabinoids, or other illicit drugs to the lungs in the form of an aerosol.

An increasingly popular device called JUUL looks just like a USB flash drive, making it easy for children and teens to conceal it. It comes in enticing flavors such as cool cucumber, mango, and mint. According to the manufacturer, a single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes. Several news outlets report widespread use of JUUL by students, even within the classrooms and restrooms at school.

Nicotine is an addictive substance that can harm brain development until age 25 years. Therefore, the use of any tobacco product – including e-cigarettes – is especially unsafe for children, teens, and college students.

Parents are urged to learn about the different styles of e-cigarettes and the risks of use among children and teens. Talk to your kids about the risks of e-cigarettes and express firm expectations that they remain tobacco-free. Remind them that healthy lungs are required to play sports, sing, play wind instruments, etc. Lastly, set a positive example by remaining tobacco-free yourself.

Scientists have not been able to prove that e-cigarettes are a safe and effective way to quit smoking. They contain potentially harmful substances including nicotine, heavy metals (lead), volatile compounds, and cancer-causing chemicals.

The CDC recommends that everyone refrain from using e-cigarettes while the risk of serious lung disease is under further investigation. Use is especially discouraged among children, teens, young adults, pregnant women, and adults who do not currently use tobacco products. Never buy products off the street or attempt to modify them at home. Users should monitor themselves for cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Seek medical attention right away should any health concerns arise.

Those attempting to quit e-cigarettes should seek out evidence-based treatments such as nicotine replacement, counseling, and other FDA-approved medications provided by their physician. You can report any e-cigarette-related health issues to the FDA using the online Safety Reporting Portal at https://www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov.

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