Two doctors give their best advice on how to discuss the subject without being met by eye-rolls

By Julie Mazziotta
November 27, 2019 10:52 AM
electronic cigarette
Credit: Getty

—Over a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control said that teen vaping is an “public health tragedy,” and the situation has only gotten worse. According to the annual National Youth Tobacco Survey, more than one in four high school students say they use e-cigarettes, and 27.5 percent reported using one in the last 30 days, up from 20.8 percent in 2018.

Meanwhile, reported health problems from vaping have soared in the last six months, with over 2,100 cases of EVALI, the vaping-related lung illness, across the country. The majority of cases occurred in males aged 18 to 35, and the youngest patient was just 13 years old. As of Nov. 20, there have been 41 deaths, including a 17-year-old from New York City.

The CDC and Food and Drug Administration are working with e-cigarette manufacturers like Juul to curb teen use, and many states have raised the legal buying age to 21. But for parents worried about their kids right now — especially as many come home from college for Thanksgiving — they want to know how to spot e-cigarette use, and how to stop it.

Here, two pulmonologists and volunteer spokespeople for the American Lung Association share their tips.

The first step is determining whether your teen vapes. Dr. S. Christy Sadreameli, assistant professor of Pediatrics in Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at Johns Hopkins, suggests looking for a few signs.

“Parents might notice a sweet smell, like fruit or bubblegum. And if their child is using a Juul, it’ll look like a USB device. Parents can google these products and familiarize themselves with what they look like,” she tells PEOPLE.

Vaping Increases Among Teens
Juul e-cigarette
| Credit: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty

There are also a few physical characteristics of a vaping addiction.

“Look out for signs of nicotine withdrawal if they’re in a place where they can’t use the product, like irritability and increased thirst,” she adds. “And teens may develop coughing, or shortness of breath. I’ve also heard of nose bleeds being a sign.”

RELATED VIDEO: How Vaping Sent This Teenager to Rehab: ‘I Did Not Understand the Severity of It’

Sadreameli also says parents can just directly ask their teen, but if they’re wary, her colleague Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Southern California advises asking about their teen’s friends.

“If I thought my child was vaping, I would ask her if her friends vape,” he tells PEOPLE. “Generally speaking, if your child’s friends vape, they may have tried or are thinking about trying. This we know. Asking about friends also makes this situation nonthreatening to your own child.”

Rutland says that if they answer yes, he would talk about the physical “consequences” of vaping and show them photos of a few of the teens who have landed in the hospital, on ventilators, from vaping. The hope is that a more technical understanding of how vaping affects the body will induce fewer eyerolls.

“I would first explain how the lung works and tell them to take a deep breath,” he says. “I would say air travels down your pipes to balloons stacked on top of one another. These balloons and airways are lined with cells. When the air is dirty, your cells become irritated and you can cough. When you vape, you are essentially inhaling dirty air which can lead to your cells becoming irritated.”

Rutland believes that visual aids like photos make a difference.

“If you have photos, I do believe they help,” he says. “And depending on the age and intellectual capacity of your child, studies may help as well so long as you explain it. I want my children to understand what can happen, what does happen and why it happens. It is really hard these days convincing anyone of anything, so pictures and excellent explanation help a lot.”

And if your teen is vaping, the next step is helping them quit their nicotine addiction. With adults, Sadreameli would typically recommend nicotine patches or lozenges, but for teens she says they should talk to their doctor.

“With a doctor, they can figure out an individualized approach and not to try something on their own,” she says.