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Inhale this: Why vaping is destroying your lungs

As a lung doc, the biggest health threat we talk about is tobacco. Like Paul Simon’s old song, “50 ways to kill your lover,” tobacco wreaks havoc on almost every organ system in one way or another. Nicotine addiction drives the desire to smoke, chew or snuff, and can be a difficult addiction to break.

So, when e-cigarettes appeared with tobacco-less nicotine to inhale, that seemed like a great way to curb the tobacco “habit” by keeping the stuff that mattered but didn’t seem harmful — the nicotine — and eliminating the stuff that we knew was deadly — the tobacco. 

However, since then, not only have studies suggested that e-cigarettes may not be such a great way to curb tobacco addiction but that they may actually be more harmful than smoking tobacco ever was.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported more than 150 possible cases of lung illnesses related to vaping and are investigating what people have begun referring to as “vaping lung disease.” Vaping has even been linked to at least one death from severe respiratory illness.

What makes vaping so dangerous?

To start with, pretty much all e-cigarettes are powered by the volatilizing of propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, both of which are converted by some e-cigarettes into a substance like formaldehyde or acetaldehyde. These substances have known toxicities and are linked to asthma and cancer. That a higher incidence of asthma exists in vapers should therefore come as no surprise.

And those sweet-smelling e-cigs? Many are laced with diacetyl or acetyl propanyl which, while approved for “ingestion,” have now been traced to nasty effects in the lungs when vaped. How does “obliterative bronchiolitis” sound? Bad, even if you don’t have a medical degree. In one study that collected data about as many different brands as possible, almost half of the e-cigs volatilized concentrations above the federal hazard limits for the industry. 

For years, people were blissfully unaware of the dangers of smoking and even after the harmful effects have become abundantly clear, many still smoke. Let’s not let history repeat itself.

We also can’t ignore the nicotine element. As a highly addictive component of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes, nicotine poses its own dangers, from slowing brain development and impairing learning ability, to increasing your risk of heart attack.

“Explore."

While we don’t know for certain the effects of vaping, it’s not worth the risk to your health. Lung disease typically takes a long time to develop, but these cases of illnesses linked to vaping are developing (and worsening) at a much faster pace than the rates we’re using to seeing from smoking and other causes.

The e-cigarette boom

In the span of just a few years, an entire industry has developed devoted to inhaling these different flavored mists and vapors. The physiologic effects of nicotine have been well studied, but the constituents that are inhaled with “vaping” are often unknown and untested — until they get inhaled by unsuspecting users, many of them teenagers.

Vaping has become especially popular among teens and young adults. But only 20 percent or so of teenagers use e-cigarettes to satisfy a craving for nicotine; the rest hop on the trend for other reasons, unknowing of the potentially harmful effects. When asked what they believed was in their e-cigarettes, 66 percent of teenage respondents answered, “just flavoring.”

For years, people were blissfully unaware of the dangers of smoking and even after the harmful effects have become abundantly clear, many still smoke. Let’s not let history repeat itself.

The bottom line: Don’t smoke. Don’t vape. Go for a walk in a park and enjoy some fresh, clean air.

Talk to a doctor today if you’re worried about your lung health.

About the author

Dr. Mark Millard
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Mark Millard, MD, is a pulmonologist and medical director at the Martha Foster Lung Care Center. Dr. Millard developed the "Rules of Two®" to help determine if your asthma is under control. Get to know Dr. Millard.

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Inhale this: Why vaping is destroying your lungs