Since vaping first became popular, studies have shown it can damage the lungs. Researchers have found that e-liquid aerosols can cause the lungs to become inflamed and irritated. Young people are particularly at risk because their brains are still developing, and nicotine can rewire their brains. Almost all vape liquids contain nicotine, but there are also many other chemicals.
What is Vaping?
Vaping involves using a device to heat liquid until it turns into an aerosol that can be inhaled. The liquid, often called e-juice or vape juice, can contain different flavors and ingredients. It may also contain nicotine, which is addictive and harmful in its own right. When you inhale, tiny vapor particles can irritate your lungs and cause inflammation.
This can lead to lung damage, such as scarring or narrowing of the tubes that bring air in and out of your lungs. Does vaping cause lung cancer? While the long-term effects of vaping are still being studied, there is growing evidence that it can increase the risk of lung cancer. It can also damage your heart health and make it harder to do activities like exercise.
Nicotine can affect brain development, especially in teens. It can make it harder for them to learn and concentrate. It can also make them more likely to use other tobacco products, including regular cigarettes and hookahs. Many people who vape start as smokers, trying to quit their smoking habit. However, research shows that most of them eventually return to smoking.
And some who never smoked might also turn to vaping. This could put them at risk for the same kind of lung problems that smoking does, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. There have been several severe injuries and illnesses associated with vaping, including dozens of lung injuries that have led to hospitalizations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with state health departments to understand what’s causing them. This includes identifying the chemicals in the vaping products causing lung injuries. Some chemicals are from nicotine; others are from the metals used in e-cigarettes, and one is from a thickening agent sometimes added to e-liquids.
What is E-Juice?
E-juice, also called vape juice or vape liquid, is a mixture of liquid base and flavorings used in electronic cigarettes. It’s a complex concoction that can contain nicotine, THC (the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana), and other chemicals.
Vegetable glycerine (VG) and propylene glycol are two of the main ingredients in e-juice. Both are food-grade approved and safe to ingest. VG and PG act as carriers that help the flavorings and nicotine bind to and be vaporized from an electronic cigarette.
Flavoring concentrates are another common ingredient in e-juice. This is where a lot of the mixology comes from – it takes different combinations of different flavoring concentrates to create a specific flavor, such as strawberry.
In addition to the unpredictable mixture of flavorings and additives, a study from 2022 found that some of the popular vape brands confiscated from school children contained traces of metals, which exceeded safe exposure levels. These included nickel, lead, and chromium.
The vaporized elements of the e-juice are coating the lungs with these substances, causing an inflammatory response that can cause scarring in the lung tissue. This may then make it harder to breathe and can even lead to lung collapse or other respiratory illnesses. This is similar to how smoking causes scarring in the lungs, and this is part of what leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in smokers.
What is the Risk of Lung Disease from E-Juice?
E-liquids contain many potentially harmful chemicals. Some, like nicotine and VG, hurt the heart, brain, and lungs. Others, like diacetyl, are known to cause bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn lung,” scarring of the tiny branches in the lungs that make breathing hard. Some of the other chemicals in e-liquids, like acrolein and formaldehyde, have been linked to cancer.
Others, like vitamin E acetate and O-vanillin, are not toxic at the concentrations added to e-liquids. Many e-liquids also contain heavy metals, like nickel, tin, and lead. Others contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as acrylates, acetone, aldehydes, and phenols. Finally, e-liquids often contain airborne particulates, including ultrafine PM2.5 and ultrafine PM10.
These particles can enter the bloodstream and travel to distant organs, causing damage. There is a lack of long-term scientific data on the health effects of vaping because it is relatively new. However, we do know that it can harm lung development in teens and young adults, cause addiction, and increase the risk of lung disease later in life.
Some damage from e-cigarette vaping is temporary and can be reversed with treatment. But some, like lung scarring, are permanent and can lead to chronic health problems that won’t go away. Some of these conditions, like COPD and asthma, are fatal.
What Should I Do?
As with smoking, people should talk to their primary care doctor or pulmonologist before switching to vaping. E-juice vapor can trigger respiratory irritation and inflammation, cause lung infections, and increase heart disease risk. It can also deliver nicotine, a potent vasoconstrictor that increases blood pressure and can interfere with oxygen delivery in the lungs. Nicotine is addictive and can lead to irritability, mood changes, and difficulty concentrating, among other symptoms.
Research has found that e-cigarette vapor contains chemicals that can cause lung disease, including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds such as acrolein, diacetyl, and benzene, at levels often reaching or even exceeding those of conventional cigarettes. Inhaled e-liquids may also contain harmful heavy metals such as nickel, tin, lead, and ultrafine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs.
But there’s one possible upside to vaping if you quit combustible cigarettes: a recent study found that adult smokers who switched to vaping had better physical health and social life than those who continued smoking.
That’s probably because a switch to vaping often accompanied healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as increased physical activity, healthier eating habits, and less frequent use of other substances like alcohol. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and addiction medicine specialists can help you devise a plan to quit vaping or cigarette smoking.