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Can Vaping Make You Sick?

by Muhammad Kashif, MD

Although electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, have been available in the U.S. market since 2007, use of them has exploded in recent years, even as traditional cigarette use decreased – especially in the youth population.

Good Intentions

Electronic cigarettes, or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), refers to a variety of items, including vape pens, e-pipes, e-hookah, and e-cigars. They are battery-powered and can take a variety of shapes and sizes. These devices were initially brought to the market to help individuals stop smoking, because the devices contained less nicotine than cigarettes and could be used as part of a cessation plan coordinated by your doctor to satisfy cravings as you ween off cigarettes. Because nicotine is highly addictive, those quitting smoking often must deal with nicotine withdrawals which cause unpleasant side effects. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve vaping as a way for people to stop smoking, and other methods, like nicotine replacement theory, are recommended.

Cause for Concern

Conventional cigarettes produce smoke that is inhaled, whereas vaping products produce an aerosol that is inhaled nothing except air is natural to be in the lungs. This aerosol isn’t just a harmless water vapor — in addition to nicotine, it may contain toxic chemicals that could be linked to cancer, as well as respiratory and heart diseases. 

While the long-term dangers on the heart and lungs continue to be studied, current research is showing an alarming trend of health issues related to the use of vaping devices. Already, hospitals are linking cases of acute lung injury or acute respiratory distress syndrome to vaping. The condition is an inflammatory reaction that occurs in both lungs and can be caused by infection or inhalational exposures. 

Additionally, e-cigarette products deliver a concentrated dose of nicotine and the FDA recently reported that some e-cigarette users — mostly youth and young adults — have experienced seizures which signals a potential emerging safety issue. To put this in perspective, consider that a single pod of one of the most popular vaporizers on the market delivers the nicotine equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes. Nicotine toxicity is known to potentially cause seizures, convulsions, and can have adverse effects on brain growth and development.

Each e-cigarette brand has its own method and formulas for creating these chemicals. The chemicals can be dangerous, but more research is needed to understand all the effects. In general, inhaling any kind of chemical is not good.

Modifying the device is also a common practice among users. Many users do this to produce more vapor, but these modifications operate outside of the devices intended use and can cause the chemicals to be more potent to the body. These modifications can also cause the device to overheat, causing burns and even device failure or explosion.

A New Generation of Vapers

A 2018 report revealed e-cigarette use grew 78% among high schoolers, and 48% among middle schoolers between 2017 and 2018. According to the report, one in five high school kids and one in 20 middle school kids use some form of e-cigarette.

There are many reasons why these devices appeal to youth. Many of these devices are easily concealed or appear to look like other common devices such as USB thumb drives, and many can also be used and will produce very little visible vapor so it’s easy to conceal use. The vape liquid also comes in a variety of flavors and scents appealing to users’ senses, and the vapor itself is generally misunderstood as less harmful than cigarette smoke.

Only time will tell just how sick vaping may make users. Currently, little research exists about the long-term effects of vaping, including its potential to cause lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Users need to understand the dangers associated with vaping and that there are a lot of unknowns about just how “safe” vaping is. Anyone who is vaping should stop immediately until experts figure out the case of vaping-related illness and lung disease.

Anyone experiencing symptoms should contact the Poison Center’s 24-hour hotline at 800-222-1222.