When Should I Worry About...

Vaping: Learn the Facts, Know the Risks

Sep. 18, 2019 - Katie McCallum

Electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes, e-cigs, vaporizers, vape pens, vapes, e-hookahs, hookah pens, e-pipes, tank systems, mods — vaping devices have as many nicknames as they do flavors.

No matter the nickname, these battery-operated nicotine delivery systems all serve one purpose: They heat liquid containing nicotine, flavoring additives and other chemicals into an inhalable vapor that’s addictive to both your brain and your taste buds.

“There’s a perception that e-cigarette vapor is ‘healthier’ than cigarette smoke. But this doesn’t mean vaping is safe — or that it can help you quit smoking,” says Dr. Eric Bernicker, oncologist at Houston Methodist. “And many young people don’t understand the risks of vaping, and e-cigarette usage is increasing in teenagers and young adults at an alarming rate.”

Perhaps more immediately concerning are the hundreds of otherwise healthy people across the nation experiencing serious lung illnesses related to vaping, with seven cases resulting in death. What’s more is that the exact cause of this vaping-related illness is not fully understood.

Whether you stumbled upon e-cigarettes while researching ways to quit smoking or are trying to explain the dangers of vaping to your child, it’s important to know the facts and understand the risks.

E-cigarettes are addictive and affect overall health

Just like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes almost always contain nicotine — an extremely addictive substance derived from tobacco. In fact, nicotine is about as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Nicotine activates the brain’s reward circuits, eliciting feelings of pleasure. It also stimulates dopamine release, encouraging a person to repeat the pleasurable behavior over and over again.

In addition to being highly addictive, nicotine affects a person’s health. Nicotine increases blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate, causes an immediate release of glucose, and has been shown to affect a person’s heart, lungs, hormones, gastrointestinal system, reproductive system and kidneys.

E-Cigarettes contain toxic chemicals

E-cigarette vapor has fewer toxic substances than cigarette smoke, but it’s still harmful. Even e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine do contain other potentially harmful chemicals.

“Even when you remove nicotine form the formula, the huge concern that remains is that we don’t fully understand the long-term effects of many of the chemicals found in e-cigarettes,” says Dr. Bernicker. These potentially harmful chemicals include:

  • Ultra-fine particles that can reach deep into the lungs, causing irritation
  • Diacetyl, a flavoring linked to serious lung disease
  • Volatile organic compounds that have the potential to cause cancer (one of which is found in car exhaust)
  • Metal nanoparticles, such as nickel and chromium

Nicotine is especially harmful to young people and unborn babies

Exposure to nicotine is particularly harmful during adolescence. Nicotine acts on the brain and can have long-term effects on decision-making, impulse control and behavior.

Since the brain is still growing well into a person’s early-to-mid 20s, young people are more vulnerable to the long-lasting effects nicotine can have on a developing brain.

And the dangers don’t end there. Addiction is a learned behavior. Since adolescent brains learn faster than adults, young people are more sensitive to the additive effects of nicotine.

Nicotine also has dramatic effects on an unborn baby. “Nicotine has been shown to affect a developing baby’s brain and lungs, as well as reduce a baby’s birth weight.” says Bernicker. This means expectant mothers should avoid e-cigarettes while pregnant.

There are better ways to quit smoking

E-cigarette vapor is less toxic than cigarette smoke, but it still contains plenty of potentially harmful chemicals. Plus, it’s unclear whether vaping actually aids in smoking cessation.

Vaping is relatively new, so not much is known about the long-term effects of the chemicals found in e-cigarette vapor. However, early studies are already raising warning flags.

“For instance, a recent study found that the flavorings incorporated in e-cigarette fluid may be more toxic when inhaled through the lungs,” says Bernicker.

Since the FDA doesn’t currently consider e-cigarettes to be an approved smoking cessation tool, it’s best to let your doctor recommend smoking cessation tools that are proven to work.
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