Into Thick Air

The Dangers of Vaping

Vaping is on the rise, particularly among young adults and kids. But vape is more than just flavored air. It’s a $2.6 billion industry – and it’s connected to serious health complications, even death.

By Holly Morse-Ellington


Chief of Thoracic Surgery, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center
Chief of Thoracic Surgery
CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

A sharp rise in vaping is making the country – and parents – take a deeper look at a hazy product. Vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, is soaring among teenagers. From 2017 to 2019, the percentage of teens (8th-12th grades) who said they had vaped in the previous month doubled. Today, approximately 25% of high school seniors admit to recent vaping, and the numbers are up among college students too. In fact, the vaping surge within this age group is among the highest uptick for any substance surveyed since 1975.

Vaping-related illnesses are also shining a spotlight on the need for concern. In September 2019, the prevalence of lung disease linked to vaping prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a warning to the general public about the dangers of the habit, and as of December, the organization reported a total of 2,561 vaping-related hospitalizations and 55 deaths.


So, What Exactly Is Vaping?

“Vaping, or better vaporizing, is the process where a heating device converts a chemical or substance into an aerosol so that it can be conveniently inhaled into the lungs for a desired effect,” explains Dr. Rob Headrick, chief of thoracic surgery at CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center.

Vape devices can heat up different flavors, from various cinnamon and breakfast blends to sweet and fruity concoctions. Marketed as “juice,””vape ingredients contain any combination of nicotine, marijuana, tin and heavy metals, and other potentially harmful substances. And with names such as Berry Good, is it any wonder that vaping can seem like a safer alternative to smoking? 

Originally, vaping caught on with adult smokers as a way to cut back on cigarettes or kick the habit altogether. “The idea was to slowly reduce the amount of nicotine in the e-cigarette cartridges over time until individuals were just putting in blank cartridges and blowing out water vapor,” explains Dr. Michael Czarnecki, a pulmonologist with Pulmonary & Critical Care Consultants of Chattanooga. But more and more non-smokers and adolescents have picked up the habit, and they’re vaping everything from nicotine to marijuana and CBD oil.

In addition to enticing flavors, arguably targeted at kids’ tastes, vaping has a subtle appeal. Vaping devices, or vape pens, are sleek and easy to conceal. That USB flash drive used to save homework might be a vaping device in disguise.


Why It’s Dangerous

Dr. Michael Czarnecki Pulmonologist, Pulmonary & Critical Care Consultants of Chattanooga
Dr. Michael Czarnecki
Pulmonary & Critical Care Consultants of Chattanooga

“Originally vaping was considered by the public to be safe, or at least less harmful than smoking cigarettes or using smoke-free tobacco,” says Dr. John Heise, an adolescent medicine physician at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, “but there have not been long-term studies to see what effects vaping can have on the lungs, brain, and other body systems.”

Already, we know that exposure to the chemicals and contaminants in liquid vape can lead to lung disease and other serious health problems. Immediate side effects can include mouth or throat irritation, coughing, and nausea.

Vaping is reportedly the common thread between the recent outbreak of illnesses in otherwise healthy teens. Patients who suffer from what the CDC has termed EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product-associated lung injury) have experienced respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain. Other patients reported gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as chills, weight loss, and fever. All patients reported e-cigarette use within 90 days before the onset of symptoms. “Teens think their lungs can handle it, but they can’t,” says Dr. Czarnecki. “This lung issue didn’t typically present in young people until recently, when the number of kids vaping started surging.”

And the heart takes a hit too. Where EVALI affects the lungs and is more often attributed to vaping juices containing THC from marijuana, nicotine vaping is hard on the cardiovascular system. Some of the cardiovascular problems include issues with blood clotting, heart attacks, stroke, and sudden cardiac death.

blue smoke from vaping

Additional Concerns

Vaping can have lasting effects on teenagers and young adults, and unfortunately, it’s perceived as more socially acceptable and less harmful than traditional smoking. “There is still the common misconception
that vaping is safe and not addictive like cigarettes,” explains Dr. Heise.

The truth is, nicotine is highly addictive in any form, and it harms the brain development process that continues throughout childhood to age 25. It can also impair memory, learning, attention span, and impulse control. “Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances to the human brain,” explains Dr. Heise. “Since adolescent brains are not fully mature until their mid-20s, they are much more susceptible to nicotine’s effects and can get addicted quicker than a fully mature brain.”

Similarly, early nicotine exposure may have a gateway drug effect. Recent studies suggest nicotine-vaping may trigger the brain’s dopamine system. Subsequently, it’s possible this can physically heighten the response to other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

“Long-term data and studies on vaping with the aerosolized nicotine, additives including THC, as well as flavoring and cooling agents have not been done,” explains Dr. Heise. “But the recent rise of EVALI is of concern and a warning of possible other health consequences.”

teen girl vaping

“My child isn’t doing it.”

“This is a common and dangerous misconception,” warns Dr. Headrick. “Current studies have shown vaping among teens has doubled in the last year, with nearly 25% high school seniors now vaping. Twenty percent of 10th graders were also found to be vaping. Nearly 20% of sophomores had vaped marijuana in the past year, with 3% doing it on a daily basis.”


Talking with Your Kids

Dr. John Heise Adolescent Medicine Physician, Children’s Hospital at Erlanger
Dr. John Heise
Adolescent Medicine Physician
Children’s Hospital at Erlanger

It’s important that you speak with your children about the dangers of vaping. Dr. Czarnecki recommends initiating conversation as early as elementary school and continuing it over the years. “In high school, peer pressure kicks in, and they think it’s cool. Parents need to be informed and have conversations about addictive personalities and the dangers of vaping early,” he says.

Find the right moment to open a dialogue. Driving past a vape shop, for example, could be an opportune time to ask your child what they think about vaping. Be ready to listen and answer their questions. You may hear: I thought e-cigarettes just had water and flavoring. Or: My friend tried it and said it was no big deal.

Ultimately, keep the conversation going. Try to keep calm and avoid critical comments, even if it is difficult. Not sure how to go about this conversation? Seek some support. Ask your health care provider or other trusted adults, such as teachers and coaches, to talk to your teen about the risks of vaping.


Clearing the Air

Vaping products on the market today are relatively new and untested. And different forms of e-cigarettes and vaping devices continue to hit the shelves. Fortunately, federal regulations are beginning to clamp down, including requiring warning labels similar to those found on packs of cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also issuing fines to retailers who sell vaping products to minors.

“You only have one set of lungs,” reminds Dr. Headrick. “Being able to breathe is so important to our performance and quality of life that protecting them is a worthy cause.” Discuss the facts with your family to help prevent a dangerous habit from forming – and clear the air. HS

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