The effects of vaping on your lungs


A mysterious, life-threatening, vaping-associated pulmonary illness is currently sweeping the nation. The severity of many of the cases is alarming. Healthy—and often young—people are coming into the hospital with severe respiratory failure. Some end up on ventilators or medically induced comas, and a few have even died.

The first confirmed vaping-related case at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center occurred this summer. For the most part, these cases are young, healthy individuals who developed severe respiratory problems after vaping. They reported using e-cigarette products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, but some had used nicotine, as well. This matches what we’re seeing nationally—while most cases involved the use of THC or both THC and nicotine, some involved only nicotine.

What’s going on?

Nobody knows for sure, which is why there are investigations going on at the state and federal levels. With so many different e-cigarette devices and additives, it’s been hard to get to the source of the problem. What we do know, however, is that vaping can compromise the health of your lungs. Your lungs are meant to breathe in fresh air and nothing else.

“The vaping industry is completely unregulated. There’re so many different brands and variations of liquids and additives that research can barely keep up to determine the health risks of e-cigarettes.”

E-cigarettes have been around for over a decade but hadn’t surged in popularity until recently. Unfortunately, research on the health effects of vaping is still in its early stages and we don’t know its long-term health effects. It took decades of research to prove what was long suspected—that smoking cigarettes could cause lung cancer and other deadly diseases. We do know that some e-cigarette flavors contain toxic substances like formaldehyde and diacetyl, which was removed from popcorn products years ago after research showed it caused a serious and irreversible lung disease commonly called “popcorn lung.”

The severity of the vaping cases nationwide show that e-cigarettes can be risky. Vaping can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain and hypoxia. Once-healthy lungs are suddenly inflamed and struggling to function properly without the aid of a ventilator or medication. While some patients may quickly recover and be taken off ventilators, the long-term effect isn’t known.

Especially concerning is that young people are picking up a potentially addictive and dangerous habit at an age when they’re still growing. Research shows that nicotine can affect the development of your lungs and brain. Keep in mind that your brain continues to develop until your 20s. The amount of nicotine in one JUUL pod is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes. While not all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they still have chemicals in them that can irritate the lungs.

When e-cigarettes were first introduced, they were touted as a safer alternative than cigarette smoking. But the severity of the vaping cases nationwide shows that’s not necessarily true. The FDA has been very blunt in warning that vaping is “not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women or adults who do not currently use tobacco products.”

If you’re using vaping as a way to kick your cigarette habit, you may want to try a different method that’s been proven safe and effective. Talk to your doctor about the different options for safely quitting smoking.

The bottom line: Put away that vape pen until more is known about what’s causing this mysterious vaping illness.

Joanna Tsai is a pulmonologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who’s currently studying how vaping affects the body’s ability to fight off infections.