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Nicotine and the Teenage Brain

Teen girls smoking nicotine through a vaping device  

Nicotine is a powerful and addictive chemical that can create lifelong addiction struggles in adults. However, most people who begin to use nicotine will do so during their teen years. Because nicotine is so potent, many people wonder about the impact this chemical has on the teen brain. Especially since the brain is still developing during the teenage years, nicotine can be very damaging to teen brain circuitry. Doctors have studied the impact of nicotine in teen brains and have found that it can cause changes to the brain and behavior that may be lifelong.

How Many Teens Use Nicotine?

As of 2018, about 4.9 million teens in the United States used nicotine, and nicotine use among teens is increasing. From 2017 to 2018, nicotine use among teens jumped by more than 38%. Experts think this is largely driven by the vaping trend because there has been no increase in teen use of other tobacco products.

Effects of Nicotine on the Teenage Brain

Although teens may physically look like adults, their brains are still developing. This can lead to unpredictable long-term effects of nicotine on a teen brain. Studies have shown that the teen brain responds differently to nicotine than an adult brain:

  • The reward system in a teen brain is more sensitive to nicotine than an adult brain.
  • High doses of nicotine are better tolerated in a teen brain than an adult brain.
  • Teen brains are more sensitive to other illicit drugs after taking nicotine than adult brains.

Developing Brains Are More Vulnerable to Nicotine-Related Damage

Teen brains are still in the process of maturing, especially in the realms of emotion and logic. Chemicals like nicotine hinder this process by damaging brain circuits that are still developing. The harm to these circuits can be permanent. An adolescent brain can be damaged in the areas of:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Learning
  • Impulsiveness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear

Further, studies show that teen nicotine exposure may permanently damage important brain chemical pathways. For example, the brain has permanent changes in how it responds to the brain chemical serotonin in people exposed to nicotine as teens.

Vaping Nicotine May Lead to Intensified Addiction in Teens

Doctors think that vaping may make a teen more likely to become addicted to smoking cigarettes later in life. Data suggests that teens who vape may smoke more tobacco and smoke more often than their peers who do not vape. This is dangerous because close to 90% of nicotine use begins during the teen years. A struggle with nicotine that begins during adolescence can last a lifetime. The teen brain is constantly developing and learning. Because substance exposure is a form of learning, the teen brain can learn to be dependent on nicotine.

Signs Your Teen Is Vaping Nicotine

As of 2018, almost 21% of high school students had tried vaping. Although it can be hard to know for sure that your teen is vaping, there are certain signs that you can look for. These include:

  • Sweet scent: Many vaping liquids are flavored and can give off a sweet scent. This scent does not smell at all like smoke from a cigarette.
  • Unusual devices: Vape pens can come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are meant to be inconspicuous and can look like USB drives or pens. Many vape pens come with battery chargers and disposable cartridges. If you see your teen with a small object that you do not recognize, it could be a vape pen or accessory.
  • Less caffeine: Some people who vape find that they become more sensitive than usual to caffeine. If your teen’s caffeine intake has decreased without explanation, it could be due to vaping.
  • Dehydration: Propylene glycol, one of the common bases used in vaping liquids, can cause dehydration. A teen who suddenly is drinking a lot more water than normal could be vaping.
  • Nosebleeds: When vaping, the steam is usually inhaled through the mouth and out the nose. Because this can be dehydrating, nosebleeds may be a sign that your teen has been vaping.
  • Cough: Chemical irritants are present in vaping fluid. Some of these can cause lung or throat irritation and damage. If your teen develops an unexplained cough, it may be due to vaping.
  • Sores around the mouth: Sores in and around the mouth could be due to the vaping device or a reaction to the chemicals in the vaping liquid.

If you suspect that your teen has been vaping, it is important to encourage them to stop. Vaping has been linked to severe lung damage, leading to death in some cases. In 2019, several states banned teen vaping. Further, many stores no longer carry vaping supplies because of the many health risks. Discussing these issues with teens is the first step in helping them overcome any struggle with vaping. Contact Next Generation Village today to learn more and to get help for your teen.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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