Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

What Does Nicotine Addiction in Teens Look Like?

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Teens who vape are at risk for addiction, and breaking free isn’t easy.

Recognizing the signs of vaping behavior in your teen can be the first step to getting them the help they need to quit.

While adults might turn to e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking, many teens start vaping thinking it’s a safe alternative. That’s because some e-cigarettes claim to be nicotine free. Recent CDC research has shown that isn’t true – 99% of e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Vaping products may contain other harmful substances as well, such as lead and cancer-causing chemicals.

Bottom line: Vaping is not a harmless habit.

Just ask Collin Bynum, 18, of Red Oak, Texas. He knows firsthand how addictive e-cigarettes can be. 

Mr. Bynum started vaping at the end of his sophomore year in high school and built up a heavy habit. “I used to go through two pods a day,” he says. But thanks to the nicotine cessation program at UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, and plenty of help and encouragement from his mother, Mr. Bynum was able to quit vaping. “I can breathe a lot better now,” he says.

Brain Changes Fuel Addiction

Nicotine can trigger brain changes that make people, particularly young people, crave more nicotine. Until about age 25, the brain is still developing and each time a new behavior or skill is learned it builds a stronger connection. Addiction is a learned behavior, which means young people are more vulnerable to it, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office. The nicotine consumed while vaping can also condition the brain to become more easily addicted to other drugs.

How to Spot a Vaping Problem

The first step is recognizing your teen might have a vaping habit. Here are a few things to look for:

  1. Unusual pens, USB drives and other devices: Some e-cigarettes and vaping devices resemble pens and USB drives, but with a hole on the end. This makes them difficult to spot at home and in the classroom. Heating coils, atomizers, and refill pods are some of the other common vaping accessories.
  2. An unexplained sweet scent: Many teens are attracted to vaping because they are fruit-flavored. The fruity smell won’t linger as long as tobacco smoke, but it can be a sign your teen is vaping.
  3. Increased thirst: Vaping dries out the throat.
  4. Nosebleeds: Vaping can dry out the nostrils and lead to nosebleeds.
  5. Reduced caffeine cravings: Some vapers report having a sensitivity to caffeine, so if they’re skipping the energy drinks and sodas you might inquire why.

How You Can Help

Next, it’s important to have a conversation with your teen about vaping – and it should be a conversation, not a lecture. Here are some suggestions on how to approach the subject:

  1. Find a natural conversation starter. Maybe it’s an ad for e-cigarettes, or you notice someone vaping. Ask your teen questions about vaping, and whether a lot of kids at their school are trying it.
  2. Explain that most e-cigarettes do contain nicotine. Some teens believe, because of marketing messages, that e-cigarettes contain only water and flavoring. Research proves otherwise.
  3. Point out the dangers of vaping without judgment. Send them a link to the science that shows vaping exposes users to harmful chemicals and increases their risk of addiction.
  4. Have them calculate the monthly cost of vaping:  It can range from $50-$120.
  5. Keep the conversation going. This isn’t a “one-and-done” topic. Discuss vaping often and calmly. And if you need additional support, consider asking a health care professional to talk to your teen about the risks of e-cigarettes.

The truth is, you can’t force your teen to quit vaping. But your influence can make a difference. Mr. Bynum says his mom played a big part in getting him to attend the nicotine cessation program at UT Southwestern. “She was worried for me,” he says. 

If your teen does decide to quit, you’ll need to provide support as they may deal with nicotine withdrawal symptoms, including: Irritability, restlessness, headaches, sweating, sadness, anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, hunger, and cravings.

You can help your teen manage these symptoms by encouraging him or her to drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, and eat healthy snacks. You can also discuss having a plan for managing cravings and dealing with situations that might trigger a desire to vape. 

Withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to quit, but as your teen stays off nicotine, the symptoms will fade. “The first week was really bad,” Mr. Bynum says. Mood swings in particular were a challenge. But he says, “quitting vaping was definitely worth it.” 

"The U.S. Surgeon General notes that addiction is especially risky for teens and young adults, because the brain is more vulnerable to addiction while it’s still developing, through about age 25."

Learn more about the nicotine cessation program.