The use of e-cigarettes among teens has become a widespread health concern. Around 1 in 5 high school students report vaping, which has been associated with increased risk for infections, breathing problems in teens with asthma and chronic bronchitis.
Now, research shows that vaping may have unique risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent study, researchers surveyed over 4,000 teens and young adults who use cigarettes or electronic cigarettes and looked at how often they were diagnosed with COVID-19.
"This is one of the first studies that looks at the concerns that physicians have had that vaping can increase your risk for COVID-19," says Devika Rao, M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern.
Is my teen at higher risk for COVID-19 if they vape?
The study found that teens and young people who vape are five times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than teens who do not vape. Teens who both vape and smoke cigarettes were seven times more likely to contract COVID-19. These numbers represent large increases in risk compared to other young healthy people who don't vape or smoke.
While more is being learned about COVID-19, vaping may increase COVID-19 risk in several different ways. First, vaping or smoking requires users to bring their hands to their face repeatedly, increasing the risk of transferring the virus from surfaces to their face.
Also, when vaping, you can't wear a mask. Teens who vape socially may be inhaling, exhaling and coughing close to one another without protection, making coronavirus spread more likely. But vaping also has major effects on the lungs.
How does vaping affect the lungs and the immune system?
Vaping can damage the branches of the lung, cause lung inflammation and lead to lung infections. If a teen who vapes comes in contact with COVID-19, they may be more likely to experience symptoms since their lungs may not be healthy enough to fight the effects of the virus.
Weakened lungs may also be unable to clear mucus, which can increase the risk of infection.
"E-cigarettes contain harmful substances like heavy metals that cause lung inflammation and can damage the lung's ability to clear mucus. Clearing mucus is important in fighting off infections," says Dr. Rao. "One study showed that vaping can cause a condition comparable to cystic fibrosis, a condition in which you have trouble clearing mucus from the lungs. That can increase susceptibility to infection, including the possibility of viral infection from the virus that causes COVID-19."
Research also suggests that the chemicals in vape pens affect the immune system's ability to function. While typically, the body would identify COVID-19 and send immune system cells to destroy the virus, this process might be faulty in teens who vape. Researchers believe that regular exposure to chemicals and toxins in vape pens may confuse the immune system.
What is the best way to talk to teens about the dangers of vaping?
Whether or not your teen vapes, you should talk to them about the dangers of vaping in an open conversation. Before you have your discussion, do your research. Don't sensationalize facts; state them clearly. Vape pens contain harmful and addictive chemicals, including nicotine. Vaping could increase their risk for COVID-19, even though they are young.
"Be mindful that adolescents' brains are still developing," says Dr. Rao. "Their ability to make decisions about using substances is limited, and the nicotine in vaping devices is potent especially for developing brains. That's why vaping products have been so successful in marketing to teens and attracting them with various flavors."
Dr. Rao recommends asking open-ended, nonjudgmental questions about what they know about vaping and its effects on their body and any concerns about vaping and their health.
"There are helpful resources for parents, too," says Dr. Rao. "The Truth Initiative is geared toward teenagers – they may feel less threatened reading the information there than if they were talking to a parent."
If your child does vape, punishment and shame won't help them quit. Offer your support in helping them quit and know that, like any addiction, teens who quit vaping may experience psychological effects as they go through withdrawal.
Learn more about talking with your child about vaping. For more information on vaping or helping your child quit vaping, you can also speak to your child's physician.
Research shows that teens who vape are 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Learn facts from an expert @Childrens.
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
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