The popularity of electronic cigarettes (e-cig) has been steadily rising over the last few years. Smoking e-cigs, or “vaping” has become a cultural trend, and may be enticing even to those who didn’t use cigarettes before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cig used has now surpassed traditional cigarette use in high school and middle school students. While in theory, e-cig use may be seem healthier, many wonder if they are truly better for lung health, or if they may actually be worse.
A team of researchers has suggested that nicotine in any form is damaging to the lunges. Nicotine levels vary in e-cigarettes, as the suggested use is to start with a high nicotine level and slowly work down to zero. However, these researchers are calling for even more studies, as they say that even with no nicotine, substance found in the liquid used in vaping may be damaging to the lungs.
The cells that line the human lungs are known as the lung endothelial cells. The damage seen from smoking is a loss of integrity in these cells, which can lead to lung inflammation and injury. However, it is not know what exact component of cigarette smoke causes this damage. In an effort to learn, researchers decided to see if nicotine was sufficient to cause damage to the lung cells.
The researchers exposed human and mouse cells to e-cigarette juice with nicotine, without nicotine, or cigarette smoke. According to their findings, nicotine is the main cause, and the negative effects of it were seen as a result of both cigarette smoke and the e-cig solution containing nicotine. Nicotine had negative pulmonary effects, which caused loss of lung cell function, inflammation, and decreased regeneration of endothelial cells in the lungs, they said in their summary.
Even in nicotine-free e-cig solution, researchers found substances such as acrolein that could be damaging to the lungs. Acrolein, found in both the solution used to create the vapor, and the vapor itself, has been shown to damage lung cells by attacking the molecules that hold the endothelial cells together.
Irina Petrache, PhD, the lead researcher in this project, says all of this calls for more studies on the negative side effects. The number of youth using these e-cigs is rapidly increasing, and from what we’ve seen, they may be very harmful to the lungs – not a healthy alternative, as some may suggest. Long-term studies are needed, but short term studies show inflammation and damage to the lungs directly caused by e-cigarette use.