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E-Cigarettes Are Increasingly Popular – But What Does Vaping Do to Your Body?

December 01, 2021
close up of vapor smoke blowing out of mouth

It’s nearly impossible to walk down the street and not see someone vaping. Whether it’s with e-cigarettes, vape pens, Juuls, or any number of devices designed to look like thumb drives, highlighter pens, watches, and even key fobs, teens and adults vaping in record number—roughly 1 in 20 Americans use a vaping device. And even though their packaging—and even aroma—may seem harmless, they disguise a very real and significant health risk to those who choose to vape and those around them.

What is vaping?

Michelle Hart, a pulmonary nurse clinician at Baystate Pulmonary Rehabilitation, points out that vaping coats the lungs not only with vapor but also with harmful chemicals.

“Vaping involves inhaling a vapor produced by an e-cigarette device deep into your lungs. Vaping devices contain an oil, often called vape juice, to which nicotine and any number of potentially harmful chemicals are added for flavoring or to create a certain aroma, like cotton candy or blueberry. Vape liquids can do irreparable harm to the lungs and other parts of the body.”

What vaping does to the body

Vaping first rose to popularity around 2007 – which means there is still a LOT to be learned about its long-terms impacts. But as for short-term impacts, there’s plenty to be concerned about.

Much of the concern about vaping revolves around vape juice. Hart explains, “Vitamin E is frequently used as the base for vape juice. People hear ‘vitamin’ and assume it’s safe. And while Vitamin E is safe when taken as an oral supplement or even in lotions, it’s not really meant to be heated and inhaled and has been found in the lungs of people with severe, vaping-related damage.”

Other substances frequently used in vape juice that pose a risk when heated and inhaled include:

  • Diacetyl: a food additive used to enhance flavors can cause damage small passageways in the lungs, often referred to as popcorn lung
  • Formaldehyde: a toxic chemical can cause lung disease and contribute to heart disease
  • Acrolein: a herbicide primarily used to kill weeds, can cause irreversible lung damage
  • Propylene glycol: a common additive in food; also used to make things like antifreeze, paint solvent, and artificial smoke in fog machines
  • Benzene: a volatile organic compound (VOC) found in car exhaust
  • Diethylene glycol: a toxic chemical used in antifreeze and linked to lung disease
  • Nicotine: a highly addictive substance that negatively affects adolescent brain development

While researchers have been able to identify the chemicals noted above and the harm they cause, there are literally thousands more to analyze. A paper recently published in the journal Chemical Research and Toxicology cited a study in which vape researchers found nearly 2000 chemicals, the vast majority of which are unidentified. The potential harm they cause is also unknown.

What vaping does to your lungs

Vaping is associated with several lung diseases including:

Popcorn Lung
Another name for bronchiolitis obliterans (BO), popcorn lung occurs when the lungs’ small airways are damaged. It was first identified in a popcorn factory and was traced back to diacetyl, an additive used to simulate butter flavor in microwave popcorn.

Diacetyl is frequently added to flavored e-liquid to enhance the taste. Inhaling diacetyl causes inflammation and may lead to permanent scarring in the smallest branches of the airways which makes breathing difficult. Sufferers often complain of wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain. There is no treatment for popcorn lung, but symptoms can often be managed.

Lipoid Pneumonia
Inhaling the oily substances found in e-liquid can cause an inflammatory response in the lungs that leads to lipoid pneumonia. Symptoms include chronic cough, shortness of breath and coughing up blood. It is possible to recover from vaping-related lipoid pneumonia with the most important step being quitting vaping immediately.

Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)
A collapsed lung occurs when there’s a hole in the lung through which oxygen escapes. Holes can be caused by injury or when air blisters (blebs) at the top of the lung burst and create tiny tears. Air blisters are frequently found in tall, thin people who had a period of rapid growth during adolescence. Because of the accelerated growth, a weak point may blister and develop at the top of the lungs. Typically, the blisters are not problematic. But both vaping and smoking increase the risk of bursting which can lead to lung collapse. Signs of a collapsed lung include sharp chest or shoulder pain, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Treating a collapsed lung may require a chest tube, surgery, and/or bed rest.

What vaping does to a developing brain

The majority of vape liquids contain nicotine. In addition to being highly addictive, nicotine alters the neurotransmitters in the brain. It has been found to slow brain development in teens and affect memory, decision-making, concentration, self-control, and mood. In some cases, nicotine can cause a brain to appear to have ADHD even when there was no prior diagnosis.

Because the brain is not fully developed until age 25, young people are at particular risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of nicotine exposure, including permanent lowering of impulse control.

What vaping does to others

Just like the vapor inhaled by the vape user, the secondhand vapor created by a device contains the same potentially harmful chemicals. While it’s not drawn as deeply into the lungs, there is evidence that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand vape aerosol absorb similar levels of nicotine as people exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke. Pregnant women, children, infants, and anyone with a lung condition should especially avoid exposure to secondhand vape.

Vaping v. smoking

Many people are under the misperception that vaping is safer than tobacco. Hart explains, “While it’s true that e-cigarettes don’t contain the tobacco found in traditional cigarettes, the other ingredients found in vape liquid more than make up for tobacco’s absence. Plus, many e-cigarettes contain more nicotine than regular cigarettes which makes them a terrible choice for anyone trying to quit smoking.”

Hart notes that a key difference between the two types of cigarettes is the immediacy of the damage done. “Regular cigarettes can cause lung cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other diseases. However, it typically takes years, even decades for those conditions to develop. But with vaping, we’re seeing lung damage developing in much less time; often under a year. Because they’re so new, we really don’t know what the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are but given the severe damage resulting in the short-term, I think it’s safe to say the long-term consequences will be life-altering.”

When you’re ready to quit

As with traditional cigarettes, quitting vaping isn’t easy. If you’re having a hard time quitting, contact your doctor for advice on resources, local programs, and online tools.

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