The Dangers of Vaping for Teens with ADHD
Nicotine activates receptors in the brain that release dopamine, the feel-good chemical that’s naturally lacking in ADHD brains. This is one (though not the only) reason that teens with ADHD are prone to nicotine addiction — smoking cigarettes and now using vaping devices, which increased in popularity a whopping 900% from 2011 to 2015. Learn why vaping is dangerous, how to identify signs of vape use, and figure out where your teen is hiding his or her vaping device.
Teens with ADHD have weak impulse control. This puts them at risk for careless social media posts, dangerous driving choices, and underage substance abuse — all habits that also deliver a quick rush of ‘feel-good’ chemicals to an ADHD brain that is often starved for dopamine.
Studies suggest that teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) begin using alcohol earlier than their neurotypical peers, and that more of them enter adulthood with alcohol abuse or dependence problems.1 Research shows similar risks for abuse of drugs and nicotine — a central nervous stimulant that many teens and adults with ADHD use to self-medicate.2 Today, there is a new and quickly growing danger: vaping.
Advertisements for e-cigarettes and vaping devices such as JUUL target teens and young adults, who spend approximately $1,000 a year on vaporizers and candy- or fruit-flavored pods.3 Each JUUL pod has the same nicotine content as one pack of traditional cigarettes, a fact of which few teens are aware. Teens with ADHD who already lack impulse-control, emotional regulation, and social confidence may be even more susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to try vaping than a neurotypical peer. Indeed, a 2017 study showed that 36 percent of teens experimented with vaping by the end of high school; that number has grown over the last two years.4
Teens with ADHD have low levels of naturally occurring dopamine and norepinephrine in their brains, which means they are at a greater risk for long-term abuse of nicotine — a drug that stimulates the central nervous system and releases dopamine. Dopamine makes them ‘feel good.’
The dangers of vaping, unlike tobacco, are not fully known — but early research is not promising. A 2018 study of 56 e-cigarettes found the presence of toxic metals — including lead, nickel, and chromium — in the aerosol.5 Though it’s been banned in Europe and shown to cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung,” the chemical diacetyl is used by some e-cigarette manufacturers.6 Similarly, the chemical acetaldehyde, found in some e-cigarette smoke, is shown to damage the lining of the mouth, throat, and stomach. And then there are the exploding vape pens. As reported recently by the Washington Post7 and New York Times, an exploding battery in a vape pen cracked the jaw and blew a hole in the chin of a 17-year-old Nevada boy who required two surgeries in 2018.
The inconspicuous vaping devices are small (some look like a mobile flash drive) and oftentimes the odor is sweet, so caregivers may not be aware their teen is vaping — even under their own roof. Here are common warning signs and methods teens use to obtain vaping devices, which are illegal under the age of 18.
Signs of Vaping in Teens with ADHD
- change in the friend group, not hanging out with former friends
- change in appetite, sudden/different cravings
- complaints from teachers about missing assignments or misbehavior in class, poor grades
- acting out, sudden urges
- lying, stealing cash
- mouth sores that are red and raw in the back of the throat
- hoarse voice
- frequent coughing
- skin irritation/rash
How Teens Obtain and Hide Vaping Devices
Vaping is prohibited under the age of 18, so how are teenagers purchasing vape pens, e-cigarettes, and pods?
Bitcoin is a digital currency that was founded in 2009. Since it is an anonymous form of currency — it doesn’t require banks or names — it’s a convenient payment method for students who want to obtain vaping devices without their parents knowing.
Amazon requires a birth date to order vaping devices, but there’s nothing stopping a teen from putting in a false date and having the product shipped directly to them.
Snapchat is a popular platform that dealers use to exchange products with buyers.
Ubereats is a convenient food delivery service. If you see that your teen has been over-spending on meals, there’s a chance he is ordering food for someone in exchange for vaping products.
Since vaping devices are so inconspicuous, they are also easy to hide. Common hiding places include the following:
- tampon boxes
- the battery compartment in a calculator or alarm clock
- vents in your home
- the bottom of snack containers
- teddy bears or other stuffed animals
- cut-outs in the pages of books
If you suspect that your teen is vaping, administer a rapid urine test at home for nicotine detection. These tests are simple to administer and are able to detect cotinine, a product formed after the chemical nicotine enters the body. Educate your child about the serious physical risks of vaping by showing your teen pictures of individuals who have been injured, hurt by or abused the substance. That said, it is important to understand and be empathetic to the social pressures your teen is facing. Rehearse scripts with her that practice turning down drugs when offered by a peer.
Research shows that vaping and substance abuse use will go down 44 percent if teens talk about it with their parents. Set up a transportation system, cab, Uber or Lyft, that your teen can use if they ever need to get out of a situation where vaping or drugs are present.
This information comes from Kristin Seymour’s, MSN, RN, AHCNS webinar “Vaping and Teens with ADHD: A Parents’ Guide to Prevention, Cessation, and Treatment.” That webinar is available for replay here.
1 Molina, B., Pelham, W. E., Cheong, J., Marshal, M. P., Gnagy, E. M., & Curran, P. J. Childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and growth in adolescent alcohol use: the roles of functional impairments, ADHD symptom persistence, and parental knowledge. Journal of abnormal psychology. (2012) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22845650
2 ADHD Appears To Increase Level Of Nicotine Dependence In Smokers. Massachusetts General Hospital. (2008) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081021185053.htm
3 Teens are spending $1,000 a year on vaping — and a crackdown on JUUL is making it more expensive. Market Watch (Jun. 2019). https://www.marketwatch.com/story/a-crackdown-on-juul-made-vaping-more-expensive-for-some-teens-2019-06-24
4 Concerns over health effects of vaping – and rising use among teens. CBS News. (2018) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/vaping-health-effects-rising-use-among-teens/
5 San Francisco could become the first US city to ban e-cigarette sales. CNN. (2019) https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/24/health/san-francisco-e-cigarette-ban/index.html
6 What Is Popcorn Lung? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/lung/popcorn-lung#1
7 A teen’s injuries looked like he was in a ‘high-speed’ crash. Instead, a vape pen exploded in his mouth. Washington Post (Jun. 2019) https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/06/20/teens-injuries-looked-like-he-was-high-speed-crash-instead-vape-pen-exploded-his-mouth/?utm_term=.4355b31ed5b9
Updated on January 30, 2020