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Is My Teen Addicted to Vaping?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

The CDC has some startling statistics on teen vaping use. Last year, more than 3 million high school students in America – that’s almost 20 percent of high school students overall – reported vaping.

In middle schools, that number was 5 percent. While lower, it’s still a shockingly high statistic for children 11-13 years old.

Among those 3 million high school students, more than 22 percent of them reported vaping daily. Most teenagers reported using flavored e-cigarettes.

Meanwhile, the vaping trend has cost lives. In the past few years, teens have been hospitalized for lung damage, breathing issues, and more. Some have even died from illnesses related to vaping products like the Juul.

Juul is the most popular vaping device for teens. This e-cigarette is so small and discreet – it looks just like a flash drive – that the inhaling motion is often unnoticeable. While the Juul is not meant for adolescent or teenage use, it’s popular among this population. So popular, in fact, that Juuling is now a verb among teens. It’s sleek, it’s small, and has bright colors and an easily concealable design. Its messaging appeals to teens – to their detriment. Additionally, teens are often attracted to Juul because the e-cigarettes come in different flavors. According to the CDC, almost 83 percent of adolescents who smoked e-cigarettes use flavored varieties. Although Juul recently banned flavored varieties of their e-cigarettes, teenagers still use other flavored e-cigarettes – such as disposable, candy-flavored e-cigs – on a regular basis.

Vaping and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made the situation any better. According to the World Health Organization, people who smoke or vape are at higher risk for developing the disease. And if they do get infected, the symptoms may be more severe, because of pre-existing damage to the respiratory system. Many who have contracted coronavirus – a respiratory illness – report shortness of breath. Some have struggled with breathing issues even long after they’ve recovered.

So, as much as your teen tries to convince you that vaping is much safer than cigarette smoking, you’re skeptical. And though we hate to be the bearer of bad news, we have to inform you that you have every reason to be.

Dangers of Vaping

Though vaping is considered a bit less harmful than actual smoking (emphasis on “a bit”) both can cause a host of negative complications. First, vaping liquids often contain concerning chemicals and additives, such as vitamin E acetate. Data from the CDC link inhaling vitamin E acetate to lung damage.

And as a general rule, inhaling addictive substances – like the flavored nicotine found in almost all e-cigarettes, or the cannabis teens substitute it with – causes physical and mental complications that damage teens’ developing brains. Marijuana use can cause memory and concentration issues, which may lead to dangerous and reckless behavior. Nicotine is highly addictive. For adolescents, whose brains are still developing, any nicotine exposure is harmful.

So what do you do about it?

First, you need to determine whether your teen actually vapes, and if so, how frequently they do.

How to Know If My Teen Is Vaping

If you’re not sure if your teen vapes, but suspect that they do, you can watch for specific clues.

For example, if you find what looks like a larger-than-usual flash drive in their backpack or room, or your teen has what looks like a Juul pod, scrutinize it. Some e-cigarettes can also look like pens.

Other signs that may indicate your teen vapes regularly include sores around their mouth, strange coughing, nosebleeds, and an unusually sweet or minty scent. Parents and teachers should also be familiar with a process called zeroing, which is when a teen holds all the vapor they inhale in their lungs until it’s gone. When they exhale, there’s no evidence of the vapor. This enables adolescents to vape discreetly, even at home or during class.

If you suspect that your teen vapes, but they refuse to admit it, find the right moment to have a conversation with them. Ask if they use e-cigarettes, or if they’ve been offered the chance to vape. If you remain calm, relaxed, and nonconfrontational during the discussion, your teen will be more likely to open up and be honest with you.

If they’re not willing to talk about it, you might consider administering a drug test. Urine drug tests are commonly administered at a doctor’s office. You can purchase an over-the-counter home test kit from a pharmacy. Keep in mind, however, that some resourceful teens can circumvent such tests or simply refuse to take one.

Is My Teen Addicted?

Once you determine your teen vapes regularly, the next step is to figure out if they can or cannot stop on their own. If they are addicted, they may need professional treatment at a drug rehab or addiction treatment center for teens.

To determine whether your teen is addicted to vaping/Juuling, consider the following questions.

We adapted this questionnaire from the HONC (Hooked On Nicotine Checklist):

  1. Has your teen ever tried to quit, but couldn’t?
  2. Does your teen vape because it’s really hard to quit?
  3. Does your teen have strong cravings to vape?
  4. Do they find it hard to keep from vaping in places it’s prohibited?
  5. Is it hard for your teen to concentrate when they can’t vape?
  6. Is your teen irritable when they can’t vape?
  7. Does your teen get a strong urge or need to vape when they haven’t for a while?
  8. Does your teen feel restless, nervous, or anxious when they can’t smoke?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, start by scheduling an assessment for substance use with a clinical professional at an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP). The results of the clinical assessment may indicate that your teen may require a detox facility or drug rehab center. Vaping and other forms of substance use are often ways to cover for other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, low self-esteem, loneliness, and more. If this is the case, your teen may require a dual diagnosis treatment center for adolescents.

In short, we do not recommend a laissez-faire approach to vaping. If you suspect your teen smokes or vapes regularly, take action: the consequences may be more severe than you think.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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