Vaping: The Health Risks and How to Quit
Using e-cigarettes and other vape devices can lead to nicotine addiction and expose you to dangerous toxins. Learn more about the unique risks young people face and how to quit the habit.
Vaping involves inhaling the vapor from an e-cigarette, e-pipe, vape pod, vape pen, or similar device. Many kids and teens look at vaping and see a harmless activity. You might think that it’s essentially just flavored steam that helps you relax. Or you might believe that vaping is so common among people your own age that the dangers must be overblown.
It’s true that vaping is an increasingly common habit among young people. In a 2021 U.S. survey, more than two million middle and high school students said they had used e-cigarettes within the past month. E-cigarettes were far more popular among those students than cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products.
Those numbers are alarming to health professionals because the dangers of vaping are very real. The aerosol from vape devices often contains nicotine, an addictive drug that can affect developing brains. On top of that, when you inhale the vapor from your e-cig, you also breathe in a variety of chemicals, some of which may be toxic. So, that seemingly harmless vapor has the potential to adversely affect your physical and mental health.
If you just vape on occasion, learning more about the risks may be enough to convince you to avoid e-cigs in the future. If you’re already a habitual vape user, you might find that cutting nicotine out is a difficult process. Maybe you want to quit, but withdrawal symptoms keep steering you back to your vape. Perhaps you’re fearful of the health risks of vaping but uncertain how you’ll cope without the nicotine. Know that it can be done. With the right information, support, and strategies, you can drop the habit for good and protect your overall health and well-being.
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The health effects of vaping
E-cigarettes have been touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Some people even switch to vaping to minimize the risks associated with smoking. It’s true that vaped aerosols contain fewer toxic chemicals than the smoke from cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean vaping is a risk-free activity.
According to a CDC study, roughly 99 percent of e-cigarettes sold in the U.S. have some level of nicotine, and the content isn’t always disclosed. Nicotine is a stimulant that raises your heart rate and gives you a temporary high. You might use it to unwind after a long day at school or calm your nerves before going to a big event.
If you have a nicotine dependency and go too long without the drug, you may begin to feel depressed, anxious, unfocused, or irritable. So, you vape again to reduce those symptoms, and the cycle repeats. This can lead to a distressing situation as you start to feel as if the nicotine addiction holds power over you.
Nicotine can also affect your brain, which continues to develop until you reach your mid-20s. Nicotine interferes with brain development by impairing regions of the brain responsible for learning, focus, mood, and impulse control. This can have consequences for everything from your schoolwork to your social life.
Difficulty retaining information in class or staying focused on your homework could lead to academic challenges. Mood swings and impulsive behavior might lead you to lash out at your closest friends, causing rifts in your social circle.
Toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes
Aside from nicotine, the aerosol from your vape may expose you to other unhealthy chemicals. Formaldehyde, an irritant and probable carcinogen, can form when the liquid is heated. Chemicals like acrolein, diacetyl, and diethylene glycol can damage your lungs. Vaping can also expose your body to metals, such as tin, lead, nickel, and cadmium.
Vaping may pose dangers that researchers have yet to uncover. As recently as 2019, a synthetic form of vitamin E was identified as a possible culprit behind an outbreak of lung injuries among vape users. In addition, one 2021 study of vaping aerosols and liquids identified the presence of nearly 2,000 unknown chemicals.
Risk of diseases
More and more studies indicate that vaping can affect oral health. Nicotine interferes with blood flow in the gums, and e-cigarette aerosol alters the state of oral bacteria. This raises the risk of periodontal disease, which comes with symptoms such as bad breath, swollen and bleeding gums, difficulty chewing, and loose teeth.
New research also shows that e-cigarette users may have an increased risk of prediabetes and lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you use both e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes, you further increase your health risks. One study found that people who use both types of nicotine sources significantly raise their odds of cardiovascular disease.
How to quit vaping
There are many reasons to stop vaping, but breaking the habit can be a frustrating process. Maybe you manage to avoid e-cigs for a day before giving in to the desire to vape. Then, a sense of shame and regret accompanies the nicotine high. After repeatedly failing to quit, you might feel helpless, discouraged, and begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with you.
Know that you’re not alone. Nicotine addiction is an issue that many people struggle with. However, a thoughtful and strategic approach to tackling the addiction and related habits can make all the difference.
Start by reflecting on your own motivations for quitting. For most people, quitting e-cigarettes comes with multiple benefits. Write down all of your motivations. Perhaps you want to save money for an important event, but you keep spending money on vape accessories. Or maybe you want to quit vaping to avoid the physical and mental consequences of addiction. If your relationships with friends, partners, or parents have suffered due to your habit, quitting might improve your social life. This list of reasons to quit vaping will help keep you on track when you’re tempted to resume the habit.
Next, set a quit date. When do you plan to be completely free of the vaping habit? Pick a day that falls within the next two weeks, so the drive to quit remains strong. However, don’t pick a day that you know will be extremely stressful, such as the day of an important test. Once you have your target goal set, you can begin to adjust your behavior and break the addiction.
Quitting vaping tip 1: Identify and manage triggers
Triggers are specific situations that increase your urge to vape. For example, smelling vapor in the air or seeing friends vape might increase your craving. Maybe online or television ads tempt you to pick up an e-cigarette.
Certain emotional states can also act as triggers. Perhaps the stress of prepping for a job interview increases your desire to vape. You might also turn to nicotine to cope with loneliness and boredom.
If you have a hard time identifying your triggers, keep a craving journal. Record information such as when the craving started, what you were doing, and who you were with. You can also note the intensity of the craving.
Once you know your triggers, you can develop strategies to avoid or minimize them.
For starters, take time to get rid of any vape accessories in your backpack, locker, car, or room. If social pressure is a trigger, take a break from friends who vape or let them know you’re trying to quit. If someone tries to coerce you into using e-cigs again, simply give a firm but polite “no thank you.” A good friend will respect that boundary.
When it comes to emotion-based triggers, you’ll need to learn new ways to cope with those emotions. Here are just a few examples of potential coping strategies:
If you’re experiencing loneliness and boredom:
- Use self-compassion and positive self-talk to challenge shyness and anxiety.
- Join clubs and attend events that match your interests.
- Look for opportunities to do volunteer work.
If you’re stressed or anxious:
- Incorporate daily mindfulness meditation or breathing exercises.
- Avoid overcommitting and taking on too much responsibility.
- Take care of your body by getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet.
If you’re feeling depressed:
- Use regular physical activity to improve your mood.
- Surround yourself with friends and family members who make you feel safe and cared for.
- Reach out to a helpline if you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts.
Tip 2: Prepare for cravings and withdrawal
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable sensations that set in shortly after you quit vaping. They might last days or weeks but know that they’re a normal part of the process. Common nicotine withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Grogginess and difficulty concentrating
Cravings can be intense, but they usually only last for a few minutes. There are plenty of ways to cope until they pass. Experiment with these strategies to see what works best for you.
Have go-to distractions. These could include listening to music, playing with a pet, or playing a video game.
Get physically active. Take a short jog, ride your bike, or do some push-ups or jumping jacks. These activities can serve as distractions, but they can also boost your mood and energize you.
Review your reasons for quitting. Remember that list of your motivations to quit? Revisit it. Reflect on how much better you’ll feel once you drop the habit. Envision yourself being free of nicotine.
Use an oral substitute for vaping. For example, chewing gum or crunching on a carrot can help distract you.
Practice deep breathing to calm your nervous system. Slowly inhale through your nose for several seconds. Follow this with a longer exhale. Repeat until you feel your anxiety decrease—or try our Deep Breathing Meditation.
Drink more water. If the cravings come with other withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and hunger, staying hydrated can help.
Although cravings are common in the first few days of quitting, you’ll likely find that they eventually decrease in both frequency and intensity.
Tip 3: Find support
Dropping the habit is ultimately your own responsibility, but leaning on others for support can help. Tell your loved ones that you’re trying to quit vaping and would like their backing. Talking to them about your goal will also help them understand any changes in your mood over the next few days or weeks.
Let them know what specific actions they can take to help you. Maybe you want friends to avoid vaping around you. Perhaps you want your brother to bluntly remind you of the health consequences. You might want a friend to join you in a new exercise routine or hobby to reduce your stress and boredom. Remember to take the time to show your appreciation for supportive friends and family members.
You can also look for professional support. Reach out to a cessation counselor for personalized advice on quitting. You can contact a counselor by phone or online. Your doctor might be able to prescribe medication that eases withdrawal symptoms, if necessary. However, you can also find over-the-counter solutions, such as gum and patches.
Be patient with yourself. It might seem difficult at first, but with effort you can kick the habit. Of course, quitting is no small task. So, as you reach each milestone, take time to celebrate your accomplishments. If you slip up and cave to the temptation to vape, don’t be too hard on yourself. Turn it into a learning experience. What triggered you to vape again? What can you do to address that trigger in the future?
Tips for parents of children who vape
If your child vapes, it’s natural to feel worried. You might fear that vaping will have serious health consequences or lead them to adopt other risky habits.
Despite your fears, you also know that talking to teens about these kinds of subjects can be tricky. You may not want to run the risk of an argument or make them feel defensive. Fortunately, there are many ways to gracefully broach the subject.
First, it’s helpful to understand why your child or teen is vaping to start with.
Why kids and teens vape
The more you understand the reasons why young people vape, the easier it will be to talk to your child about the dangers. Common reasons include:
Peer pressure. Many kids and teens say they initially tried e-cigarettes because their friends were using them. Friends might pressure one another to vape by downplaying the risks. Even when there’s no overt pressure from friends, non-vaping teens might feel the need to try it out to fit in with the group.
Attractive flavors. Although vape manufacturers avoid directly advertising to younger users, kids and teens often find flavored products appealing. Products that mimic the taste of fruit, candy, and desserts can be particularly enticing.
Negative emotions. Adolescence can be a turbulent time that’s filled with self-discovery, social stressors, and school demands. Young e-cigarette users often rely on their vape devices to manage the stress, anxiety, and depression that come with this stage of life.
Perception of safety. For years, e-cigarettes have successfully been pitched as safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes. Unfortunately, kids and teens have also picked up on this messaging and often underestimate the risks of vaping. The sweet flavors can also play into the harmless appearance of vape products.
Accessibility. It’s often easier for young people to obtain e-cigarettes, especially if the products are popular among their friend groups. Vaping is also often cheaper than other tobacco products, which is appealing to young people who don’t have income.
Aesthetics. Many vape devices are easy to conceal from adults but have a sleek design that teens can show off to one another. Some young people may also think that vaping makes them look older and more mature.
How to talk to your child about vaping
Setting the right tone can make a big difference in how well the conversation goes. You don’t need to make the conversation seem like a big deal by pulling your child into the dining room for a formal chat. In fact, this might make them feel interrogated.
Take a casual approach and let the topic come up naturally. For example, maybe you both see an ad on TV or spot someone vaping in public. Situations like those offer a great opportunity to raise the subject. Avoid starting the conversation when you or your child are already stressed or in a rush. The chat might go more smoothly if you’re both comfortable.
Use open-ended questions to invite discussion. You can try asking what their opinion is on vaping or the risks of e-cigarettes versus cigarettes. The goal is to have a conversation rather than a lecture. Don’t criticize them. Listen to their answers in a nonjudgmental way and ask follow-up questions.
Share what you know about the risks of vaping. You might want to mention how vaping affects the teeth and gums, as well as the potential for nicotine addiction. You can also mention the illegality of underage vaping, but avoid making threats. Make it clear that your concerns come from a place of love rather than the desire to control their every action.
The conversation doesn’t need to be one, long chat. You can have many short talks with your child over the span of days, weeks, or months. If your child is initially hesitant to open up about their experiences, return to the topic later. Thinking of it as an ongoing conversation also gives you both time to research and learn more between discussions.
How to help your child quit vaping
Your support can make all the difference in helping your child kick their vaping habit. Start by educating yourself on addiction and withdrawal symptoms. The more you know about these subjects, the better prepared you’ll be to help your child quit.
Help them cope with triggers and temptations. Sit down with your child and make a list of potential triggers. Then, you can work together to brainstorm coping strategies, such as:
- Getting rid of vape devices.
- Practicing saying “no” to peer pressure.
- Keeping gum or other smoking substitutes on hand.
Regularly talk with your child about their stressors. Do they feel depressed about a breakup or anxious about an upcoming test? You don’t always need to have solutions to their problems or nuggets of parental wisdom. Sometimes just listening and making your child feel heard is enough to improve their well-being.
Encourage your child to embrace hobbies and social activities. Suggest that they try out team sports, learn an instrument, or join a local club that matches their interests. If they have existing hobbies, do what you can to support them. As your child focuses more on their hobbies and interests, they may feel less tempted to use vaping to manage negative emotions. Volunteer opportunities can also alleviate boredom, boost self-esteem, and help foster a sense of direction.
Make them feel empowered. Compliment their ability to think critically and independently. Let them know you trust them to make smart decisions, even in the face of peer pressure. Remind them of other hurdles they’ve overcome and things they’ve accomplished when they put their mind to it. By doing this, you help your child tap into the self-confidence and emotional resilience they need to overcome addiction and quit vaping.
Author: Sheldon Reid
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Hotlines and support
Canada: Visit Health Canada or call the helpline at 1-866-366-3667.
Australia: QuitNow or call 137 848.
Worldwide: Nicotine Anonymous offers a 12-Step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous with meetings in many different countries.
Last updated: September 27, 2022