Report Finds Link Between Vaping and Serious Lung Issues
Vaping has grown in popularity over the years, starting as an alternative to smoking cigarettes and more recently becoming a means to ingest marijuana and other concentrates. At this time, the FDA and CDC have not identified the cause of the lung injuries in these cases, but the major commonality among all the cases is that patients report the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. The demographics are also similar in many of the reports.
"People who've been getting sick are young, male adults under the age of 35. This should serve as a warning for teenagers," says Matthew Woodford, M.D., a pulmonologist with GBMC HealthCare.
E-cigarette use is especially prevalent among high school students, with the CDC reporting more high schoolers using the devices than adults in the United States. And the number of teenage users is on the rise. More than 20% of high school students reported vaping in 2018, almost twice the 2017 rate. The legal age to buy e-cigarettes is 18 in most states, but the products are widely available online, and not all sellers require proof of age.
Dr. Woodford says there are several reasons why it's hard to pinpoint what's causing the lung disease.
"As of right now we don't have enough information to say there's one specific product, additive, or flavoring and say that that is the definite cause," he says. "Additionally, the companies that produce these [vapor liquids] aren't required to divulge all of the additives that are in there. It makes it difficult to know what's even in these products."
He says it will likely be several years before we truly know the effects vaping can have on long-term lung health.
In addition to the unknown health risks associated with inhaling the vapor itself, a study published in October 2019 found that nine out of 40 mice exposed to e-cigarette smoke with nicotine for 54 weeks developed lung cancer. While Dr. Woodford advises we must be careful when comparing humans to mice, he adds, "We can at least make an association that this vapor they're breathing has a very high risk of causing cancer in mice, so you can postulate there is probably an increased risk in humans as well."
Many adults turn to vaping as a way to stop smoking cigarettes, but Dr. Woodford says just because someone isn't smoking tobacco doesn't mean there aren't health risks. He warns that a healthy checkup today doesn't mean someone is guaranteed fully functioning lungs in the future. "[If you're vaping daily], you're unlikely to see any changes in your lungs for 10 to 20 years. It will be some time before we know the long-term effects on lung function and lung health overall."
Bottom line: Steer clear of vaping, or be aware of the risks involved.
"I discourage vaping in any shape or form," emphasizes Dr. Woodford. "There's a very clear association with risks to your health. It is not a safe alternative to cigarettes."