[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
- Recent data shows that about one in 10 middle and high school students use e-cigarettes. Yet, vaping can be dangerous for young people.
- People who have been hospitalized because of vaping have symptoms that are similar to the flu or a respiratory virus.
- The CDC recommends that young people and women who are pregnant refrain from using e-cigarettes.
When e-cigarette use (vaping) first became popular in the mid-2010s, many people thought they were a safe way to gradually quit smoking. Then, users started dying and becoming seriously ill, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a consensus report in 2018 that made clear the dangers of e-cigarettes.
Experts have noted the alarming rise in vaping usage among young people; according to 2022 data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about one in 10 U.S. middle and high school students used vaping devices. Here's some important information about this new trend, and why you should know about it.
What is vaping?
Vaping refers to smoking e-cigarettes, which are electronic devices that heat a liquid and produce a mix of small particles in the air, or aerosol. E-cigarettes come in a variety of formats, but most have a battery, a heating element and a place to hold the liquid.
The liquid in e-cigarettes often contains nicotine and flavorings. Users inhale the aerosol into their lungs, which means they are also inhaling the nicotine, an addictive substance.
The most popular e-cigarette among teenagers
JUUL, the top-selling e-cigarette brand in the United States, looks like a USB flash drive, but it’s actually a battery-powered device that heats liquid to produce an aerosol. It contains high levels of nicotine; according to the manufacturer, a single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately two-thirds of JUUL users ages 15-24 don’t know it contains nicotine. Additionally, this brand of e-cigarettes uses nicotine salts, which allow high levels of nicotine to be inhaled more easily and with less irritation than other types of nicotine products.
JUUL is the most common e-cigarette brand seen in school classrooms and bathrooms.
How are people getting sick from vaping?
The CDC has named the vaping-related condition EVALI, which stands for “electronic cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury.” Those who have been hospitalized with suspected EVALI have symptoms similar to the flu or a respiratory virus, such as:
- Trouble breathing
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
- Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain
In some cases, the patients have gone on to develop pneumonia, or an infection in the lungs. Others have developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, which happens when fluid collects in the lungs, making it hard for oxygen to circulate through the body.
Doctors and researchers are still trying to figure out precisely what is causing these symptoms, which have been associated with vaping both marijuana (THC) and nicotine. Because the symptoms vary widely from patient to patient, experts don’t know whether the cases are being caused by one illness or several different syndromes caused by inhaling the chemicals.
The chemicals in vape devices
The vapor from e-cigarettes contains several different harmful chemicals, including addictive nicotine.
Aside from nicotine, the vapor can also include:
- Propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin – These are used to create the big “clouds” when exhaling, and they have been shown to irritate the lungs and airways.
- Chemicals for flavoring – Some flavoring chemicals contain diacetyl, which has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a serious lung disease.
- Volatile organic compounds – These have been shown to irritate the nose, throat and eyes and can damage the kidneys, liver and nervous system.
- Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein – High concentrations of these chemicals can cause short-term side effects, like irritation in the nose and eyes, and long-term effects like lung disease and cancer.
Vape devices and e-cigarettes have a slightly different concoction of chemicals than cigarettes and are not regulated so the manufacturers determine what goes in them.
What are the long-term risks of vaping?
Public health researchers are continuing to study the long-term health risks of vaping in humans, although some research showed that e-cigarette vapor caused lung cancer and potentially bladder cancer in mice.
The study, which was conducted at New York University, did not have the mice inhale the vapor (as a human would). Instead, researchers surrounded the mice bodies their whole bodies with vapor.
The researchers acknowledged that the results were not meant to be compared to human disease but does show that “e-cig smoke should be more thoroughly studied before it is deemed safe or marketed in that way.”
Regarding vaping, the CDC recommends:
- Do not use e-cigarettes containing THC, as more cases of lung disease have been linked to vape products with THC.
- Do not use any type of e-cigarette or vape product purchased off the street.
- Children, young adults and women who are pregnant should never use e-cigarettes.
If you are using e-cigarettes to quit smoking, switch to evidence-based smoking cessation treatments such as doctor-provided counseling or FDA approved medicines.
If you have been vaping and develop any concerning symptoms (such as a cough, trouble breathing, chest pain, nausea or fever), see a doctor right away. Your doctor can also support you in finding a safe and proven way to quit smoking tobacco if needed.
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about how to talk to your kids about smoking or vaping or want to schedule a child’s wellness exam, Swedish Pediatrics can help. Additionally, Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.
Do you or a family member need help quitting tobacco use? If you’re thinking about quitting, or your doctor has advised you to quit, Swedish can help. You can also learn more about developing a plan and finding support to quit at the Washington State Quitline.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.