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What you need to know about the health risks of vaping

September 9, 2019 Wellness

When vape pens and electronic cigarettes first debuted nearly a decade ago, there was hope that the devices would be a healthier alternative for smokers who understood the risks of their tobacco habit but were struggling to quit. The products were often marketed using phrases like ‘safer,’ ‘make the switch,’ and ‘no tar’ to give consumers the impression that vape pens and e-cigarettes were better for their health than traditional tobacco products.

Some of these claims are technically true; these devices don’t contain the tar and tobacco that traditional cigarettes do—and, despite its risks, vaping is technically a safer option than cigarettes. But recent headlines are shedding some light on the dangers of vaping.

Within the past several weeks, 33 states have reported 450 cases of pulmonary illness that have resulted in hospitalization and, in two instances, death. As health officials have sought to learn more about this troubling trend, a pattern has emerged. Every patient who has been hospitalized has reported a similar set of symptoms—wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing—and all have used e-cigarettes.

Despite these similarities, the United States Surgeon General says that “no single substance or e-cigarette has been consistently associated with these illness reports.” Until more information is available, e-cigarette users are being urged to stop using any e-cigarette product, but especially those that:

  • Are not purchased directly from manufacturers
  • Contain THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana
  • Have been modified or tampered with

Understanding the risks of e-cigarettes

From the start, the medical community has been skeptical of e-cigarettes. Many physicians and tobacco cessation educators were quick to point out that vape pens and e-cigarettes are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are minimally researched and are not considered an effective technique to quit smoking.

“Extensive research and testing are necessary before we can uphold any claims that these products are healthier than traditional tobacco products,” says Main Line Health Pulmonologist Joshua E. Danley, DO.

While e-cigarettes were generally considered safer because they did not contain the same degree of carcinogens that are found in traditional tobacco products, these products aren’t free of risk or harmful ingredients.

“E-cigarettes should not be considered benign or harmless,” says Dr. Danley. “Since no government agency regulates vaping fluids, the safety of these flavored liquids has not been well studied. The substances in e-cigarette vapor have been shown to inflame lung tissue and impair our body's natural processes, potentially increasing one's susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections as well as other negative consequences.”

Why e-cigarettes are especially dangerous for teens and adolescents

E-cigarette use can be especially harmful to adolescents and teenagers, groups who are being hospitalized in large numbers due to respiratory issues. These devices don’t just affect teens’ lungs; they affect their brains, too.

Nicotine (which is present in e-cigarettes) is a highly addictive chemical that has been shown to negatively affect brain development, particularly the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that are responsible for decision-making and impulse control. As the young brain is still developing up until the age of 30, nicotine can also affect the formation of synapses, tampering with the “wiring” of the brain and setting a teenager up for a lifetime of addictive tendencies and potentially impacting mood, attention span and learning.

Talking about—and tackling—vaping

If you have a teenager or other friend or family member who uses e-cigarettes, today’s headlines might offer an opportunity to start a conversation about the dangers of the habit and how to quit. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Lead by example: Before you start a conversation about the danger of e-cigarettes, ask yourself if you’re setting the right example. Do you use cigarettes, e-cigarettes or tobacco products? Do you smoke all the time or only when you’re stressed, out with friends or drinking? Regardless of when or how frequently you smoke or use these products, they all still present significant health risks. In most cases, teens and young adults first see smoking in their homes or within their families, so make sure the behaviors you’re modeling are ones you’d want them to follow
  • Discuss the risks of e-cigarette use honestly and openly: Gloom and doom about addiction and dangers is unlikely to deter anyone from experimentation but stating the facts in a neutral way and letting them know your own feelings about it could lay the groundwork for responsible decision-making in the future. It might also help to hear from you that you hope they choose not to smoke because you care about their well-being, not because you’re a buzz-kill so to speak.
  • Don’t be judgmental: It can be difficult to feel “preached to” about the dangers of smoking or any dangerous health habit (drinking, overeating) especially if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand how addictive these behaviors can be. Keep this in mind when you start a conversation with a loved one who smokes.
  • Help them stop: Quitting smoking can be tough to do on your own. Most community centers and local hospitals—including Main Line Health—offer help for quitting smoking. Learn more about SmokeFREE, our free, six-week tobacco cessation program. “At the end of the day, any foreign particulate inhaled into the lungs should be avoided. We are not meant to inhale these substances in any quantity— such behavior is not without consequence,” says Dr. Danley.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.