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How Vaping Affects Lung Health

Key Points:

  • Vaping is not safer than smoking traditional cigarettes. It inflames and damages the lungs.

  • E-cigarettes and vapes contain poisonous chemicals – many of which are linked to serious lung diseases that have been shown to affect youth, like asthma, “popcorn lung,” and e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI).

  • Vaping and other drug use can make you more susceptible to infection.


By now, you probably know that smoking and vaping are not ideal for your lung health. The risks of using these substances and devices span beyond cancer.

But did you know that adolescents and young adults are also susceptible to the dangerous effects of vaping? In fact, they were among the many to get sick with a mysterious lung-related injury that swept the country in late December 2019. From a chronic cough to nicotine addiction, some youth remain unaware that vaping poses many hidden hazards. Schools can play a critical role in increasing awareness about lung health issues and implement strategies to reduce vaping.

What’s in an e-cigarette?

There is a common misconception that electronic cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes. But that’s far from the truth. When you vape – either nicotine or marijuana – you’re potentially inhaling poisonous chemicals. Some of the biggest offenders, according to the American Lung Association, are:

  • Acrolein: A chemical in weed killer that can cause significant lung damage

  • Benzene: A type of gas in car exhaust fumes

  • Cadmium: A toxic metal in traditional cigarettes that’s linked to breathing issues, lung damage, and stomach irritation

  • Carcinogens: A group of substances shown to cause cancer

  • Diacetyl: A chemical used to give foods a butter-like taste; while safe to eat, it’s been linked to a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans (“popcorn lung”) when inhaled

  • Diethylene glycol: An ingredient in antifreeze

  • Heavy metals: Like nickel, tin, and lead

  • Nicotine: An addictive drug in tobacco that can harm the developing adolescent brain

  • Propylene glycol: A food additive also used in antifreeze and paint solvent

  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs

What diseases are linked to e-cigarettes and vape products? The many chemicals found in e-cigarettes and vape products can deliver a dangerous blow to your lung health. Doctors and researchers across the nation have linked some of these chemicals to:

  • Asthma and other respiratory symptoms: Vaping inflames and damages the lungs. It can cause chronic cough, mucus, bronchitis, and wheezing, as well as asthma symptoms. One study of South Korean youth found that those who regularly used e-cigarettes had an increased association with asthma and were more likely to miss school because of their severe asthma symptoms.

  • Increased risk for infection: Strong, healthy lungs are essential in helping to reduce the risk of infection. A recent Stanford University study found a strong connection between COVID-19 and vaping. Their research showed that teens and young adults who use e-cigarettes are five to seven times more likely to test positive for the virus.

  • Bronchiolitis obliterans (“popcorn lung”): This condition causes the lung’s tiniest airways (bronchioles) to swell up. Symptoms resemble the flu and include fever, extreme tiredness, weight loss, and wheezing. A recent Canadian Medical Association Journal article documented a 17-year-old male’s experience with this condition, linking its onset to e-cigarette use. And Harvard University researchers found that 39 of 51 e-cigarette brands contained diacetyl, which causes popcorn lung.

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a lung disease that gets worse over time and causes difficulty breathing, wheezing, mucus build-up, and a chronic cough. It can take years to develop – and up to 75 percent of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. While the link between vaping and COPD is unclear, a 2016 study found that vape fluids with nicotine caused lung swelling and damage consistent with COPD.

  • E-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI): In 2019, a national outbreak of lung-related illness swept the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported patients had a wide range of respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, like a cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, and more. Later named EVALI, this disease affected youth just as much as older adults. In fact, 15% of the 2,668 reported cases in December 2019 were among youth less than 18 years old; 37% – the highest amount – were among those aged 18-24. CDC lab data showed that vitamin E acetate – an additive in some vape products that contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – is strongly linked to the EVALI outbreak. Also, the CDC tied the risk for EVALI to using vape products from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers.

What can schools do? While this may sound cliché, it’s relevant in this case: knowledge is power. Schools can play a critical role in educating their students about the dangers of vaping – and why they are just as susceptible to these health risks even though they are young. Schools can also help by reducing vaping on school grounds, for example by installing vape detectors.

Written by Kristin Erekson Barton, MA, CHES

Reviewed by Cindy Bistany, DHSc

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