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What Are E-Cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are devices marketed as a safe alternative to smoking. But they're not safe because they put nicotine — a highly addictive drug — into the body.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered smoking devices often designed to look and feel like regular cigarettes. They use cartridges filled with a liquid that contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. A heating device in the e-cigarette converts the liquid into a vapor, which the person inhales. That's why using e-cigarettes is known as "vaping."

A new type of device, called the Juul, is a slim e-cigarette vaporizer that looks like a flash drive and can be charged in a laptop's USB port. Because it's less recognizable, parents might not even realize their child has a vaping device. Also, it produces less smoke than other devices — and dissipates quickly — so some older kids and teens are using them to vape in school. The Juul delivers nicotine levels similar to a cigarette's.

Why Are They Dangerous?

Because e-cigarettes don't burn tobacco, people don't inhale the same amounts of tar and carbon monoxide as with a regular cigarette. But anyone using an e-cigarette still gets an unhealthy dose of nicotine and other chemicals.

Electronic cigarettes have been marketed to smokers as a way to help them quit, but there's no evidence that they actually help people stop smoking. Instead, they've been found to be a health risk for people who use them, as well as for bystanders who breathe in the secondhand vapor (what comes out of the device and the user's mouth) and third-hand vapor (what's deposited on surfaces such as upholstery, clothing, and floors).

Now that e-cigarettes have gone mainstream, regulators and scientists are studying them a lot more. Expect to see more information coming out about e-cigarettes and their health effects.

What Are the Health Risks of Nicotine?

E-cigarettes don't fill the lungs with harmful smoke, but that doesn't make them a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes.

Anyone who uses ("vapes") an e-cigarette is still putting nicotine — which is absorbed through the lungs — into his or her system. Besides being an addictive drug, nicotine is also toxic in high doses. It was once even used as an insecticide.

Nicotine affects the brain, nervous system, and heart. It raises blood pressure and heart rate. The larger the dose of nicotine, the more a person's blood pressure and heart rate go up. This can cause an abnormal heart rate (arrhythmia).

In rare cases, especially when large doses of nicotine are involved, arrhythmias can cause heart failure and death. Babies and young children, especially, don't need a very large dose to develop severe poisoning. Studies report increases of nicotine poisoning cases in very young children from accidental exposure to e-cigarette solutions.

After the initial effects wear off, the body starts to crave nicotine. An e-cigarette user might feel depressed, tired, or crabby (this is nicotine withdrawal), and crave more nicotine to perk up again. Over time, nicotine use can lead to serious medical problems, including heart disease, blood clots, and stomach ulcers.

Keeping Kids From Using Them

Because nicotine is so addictive, the best way to avoid the health problems it can cause is to never start smoking or vaping. While kids and teens often don't consider how their current behaviors can affect their future health, it's important to discuss them. Also focus on the immediate downsides, like less money to spend on other pursuits.

If your teen smokes and wants to quit, e-cigarettes aren't the way to go. Using an e-cigarette mimics the experience of smoking regular cigarettes more closely than other quitting options. Instead, encourage your teen to try nicotine gum or the nicotine patch, which will help prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Whether your teen uses old-school smokes or trendy new e-cigarettes, the tips for kicking the habit are the same:

  • A plan is important. Your teen should set a date to begin the quitting process. Then, even a modest goal — like using one less e-cigarette each day for a week — will work.
  • Stay busy. Distractions like exercise or doing something that involves using the hands (art, music, knitting, etc.) can help an urge to smoke or vape pass.
  • Overcome cravings. When your teen craves a cigarette or e-cigarette, encourage him or her to think "wait" rather than '"no," then do something to distract from the craving. Chances are, the urge will pass, and that means one less cigarette.
  • Get support. Encouragement from you and other family members when your teen really wants a cigarette is important. Joining an online or in-person support group can help, too.

If You Smoke

Kids are quick to observe any contradiction between what their parents say and what they do. And you might be surprised to learn that most kids say that the adult whom they most want to be like when they grow up is a parent.

So if you smoke (or vape), quit. It's not simple and it may take a few attempts and the extra help of a program or support group. But your kids will be encouraged as they see you overcome the addiction.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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