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More children are being poisoned by e-cigarette liquids. Here's what parents need to know

Many parents are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoking for their kids. But some may not know that exposure to the liquids used in vapes and e-cigarettes can be even more dangerous to young children.
Tony Dejak
Many parents are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoking for their kids. But some may not know that exposure to the liquids used in vapes and e-cigarettes can be even more dangerous to young children.

Dr. Hannah Hays has seen what exposure to the liquid used in vapes and electronic cigarettes can do to children.

One child who had ingested a large amount of liquid from a vape pen "developed loss of consciousness, muscle jerking, repeated vomiting and had to be placed on a ventilator or breathing machine," Hays, the medical director of Central Ohio Poison Control, said.

And the problem is on the rise nationwide.

Exposure to liquid nicotine hit an all-time high in 2022, according to national data. More than 7,000 cases of exposure have been reported between April 2022 and March 2023 –– double the number of cases reported in 2018.

Young children can be severely hurt by drinking e-liquids, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For little children, even a few drops of the liquid can be extremely dangerous or fatal.

“Children may also accidentally be exposed to e-liquids and their contents, including nicotine, through contact in the mouth, contact on the skin (i.e., spilled e-liquid), or by inhaling the e-liquid aerosol,” according to the FDA.

E-liquid containers, often colorful showing different flavors and seemingly child friendly designs, can be tempting to young children. These products typically have much higher nicotine concentration than traditional cigarettes making them especially dangerous for children.

In Ohio, where Hays works, young children being poisoned by vapes and electronic cigarette liquids is on the rise — with exposures nearly tripling over the last six years, Ohio health officials said Thursday during a media conference.

The dangers of secondhand smoke ingestion are well known, but few parents and custodians may realize that leaving vapes in the proximity of children is even more dangerous, said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the Ohio Department of Health.

Kids can be impacted by "taking a puff if they've seen someone else use it or even from absorbing it through their skin or eyes," Vanderhoff said.

Nationwide, 90% of exposures happen to children under 5. In Ohio, more than 70% of reported poisonings are among children under 5 too, Vanderhoff said.

The liquid in these devices can contain nicotine, tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the major psychoactive component in cannabis, cannabidiol, called CBD, which is also an active ingredient in cannabis, flavors or some combination of those chemicals.

"Children can easily access the products. And we don't even want children to handle these products because derma or skin exposures can cause symptoms," Hays said.

She said children who handled a device experienced symptoms including vomiting, fast heart rates, jitteriness and agitation, sometimes diarrhea and irritation of the mouth. They can also get sick from just touching a device, even one that is intact.

Hays recommended parents store liquid nicotine away and out of sight of children, ideally locked in a cabinet. She said parents should not store the devices in a purse because children can access them there.

“Also ask family members, house guests, and other visitors who vape to store their bags or coats that hold e-cigarettes or e-liquids in a safe and elevated location, out of the reach and view of children and pets,” an article by the FDA said.

If people suspect their child has ingested liquid from an e-cigarette they can call poison control 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter for Ideastream Public Media. She can be reached at