There's a lot that's still unknown about vaping—like what exactly is causing the mysterious vaping-related illness across the country and what type of long-term effects using e-cigarettes may have on the body.
Something we do know, however, is whether or not vaping is addictive—but the answer's still a little complicated.
See, if you’re using an e-cigarette, such as a JUUL, that’s heating up nicotine, the answer is yes. “What the nicotine does [is], when it goes into your bloodstream, it will release substances in your brain that can initially give you a pleasure sensation,” Humberto Choi, MD, a pulmonary medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. (Just FYI: Not all vaping devices heat up nicotine—some also heat up marijuana or other vaping liquids).
That pleasure sensation comes from nicotine stimulating the release of dopamine, or feel-good chemicals, in your brain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Those feel-good chemicals keep you coming back for more and even change your brain's sensitivity to dopamine, leading to your body needing more and more nicotine to satisfy it.
Teenagers, specifically—who are often the target demographic for e-cigarettes—are more at risk for succumbing to this nicotine addiction since their brains aren’t fully developed, says Dr. Choi. “Teenagers especially—their brains are still developing. They’re more susceptible to this kind of stimulation.”
It may also take less time to become addicted to vaping—especially in teenagers. "It may not take a lot of exposure to begin the cycle of [vaping] addiction," says Dr. Choi. In fact, teenagers specifically may cycle through the addiction process at a faster rate, becoming hooked on e-cigarettes, going through withdrawal, and then turning to e-cigarettes again "within only a matter of weeks after vaping for the first time," Brian Barnett, MD, who works at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Behavioral Health, tells Health.
Yep, you heard that right: Vaping addiction can also lead to withdrawal once you stop. Over time, your brain starts to crave it, says Dr. Choi, and once you stop, your body goes through withdrawal symptoms like typical nicotine withdrawal, including weight gain, irritability, and restlessness, among others.
But, while experts know vaping is addictive, they're not sure how addictive—or if it's any more addictive than smoking regular cigarettes. According to Dr. Choi, the scientific data isn't there yet, but, he explains, when you vape you "could be inhaling a higher concentration of nicotine" than you would from a regular cigarette, since levels of nicotine can vary between vape juices—and more nicotine could mean a quicker, stronger addiction.
Overall, as far as addiction goes, yes, vaping is something you can get hooked on—just as much, if not more than, regular cigarettes. "Previous research has shown that it takes the average smoker 30 or more attempts to quit smoking," says Dr. Barnett. "We shouldn't expect vaping to be any different from that."
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