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Researchers are learning how vaping e-cigarettes can cause lung damage. Getty Images
  • One vaping session can result in changes in blood flow.
  • Researchers worry vaping can lead to hardening of arteries over time.
  • Vaping remains most popular with young people under 30.

Vaping is on the rise with teens — roughly 1 in 3 high school students say they vaped in 2018. The habit is putting them at risk for health consequences, and now, new research shows that nicotine might not be the only thing to blame.

A report published today in the journal Radiology has found that non-nicotine vaping can harm your lungs even after just one use of an e-cigarette.

In the study, published on Aug. 20, 31 nonsmoking participants between the ages of 18 and 35 vaped the equivalent to one conventional cigarette. The solution in the e-cigarette liquid contained propylene glycol, glycerol, and flavoring, but no nicotine.

Researchers conducted MRI exams before and after the vaping experiment to see how it affected the participants’ vascular systems. The MRIs showed that participants experienced a reduction in blood flow in the femoral artery (a large artery in the thigh) after just one vaping session.

“If the blood flow is decreasing, so is the flow of oxygen,” said Dr. Lori Shah, a transplant pulmonologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“When blood flow to the brain is decreased, it can impact attention, focus, and the ability to learn, and that can have a variety of impacts on middle school and high school children.”

The researchers also found that participants had an increase in “aortic pulse wave velocity,” possibly indicating stiffening of the aorta after they vaped.

Overall, the results showed that e-cigarettes may pose a risk to vascular functions and the lining of blood vessels in young, healthy nonsmokers, even if the liquid they vape doesn’t contain nicotine.

“With long-term use of e-cigarettes, we worry it can lead to permanent vascular disease like atherosclerosis (a hardening of the blood vessels), which is typically associated with regular cigarette use,” said Dr. Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

“We still need time to see if e-cigarette users will suffer from these long-term health problems, but this study is a possible indication that it can happen,” he added.

Vapor from e-cigarettes is often thought of as a less harmful alternative to cigarette smoke, especially among young people. A 2018 survey of around 44,500 adolescents found that teens think of e-cigarettes as one of the lowest risk drugs.

“The misconception comes from the fact that vaping doesn’t have the tar and smoke that cigarettes have, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Choi.

The liquid solution in e-cigarettes typically contains a mix of solvents, flavorings, and additives. When these chemicals are heated and inhaled, it may cause damage to the respiratory tract and blood vessels, noted Alessandra Caporale, PhD, one of the researchers, in a press release.

The latest findings echo previous research that has shown a connection between nicotine-free vaping and health consequences. A 2018 in vitro study found that exposure to e-juice flavoring compounds may trigger an inflammatory response in white blood cells.

Another study from 2018 found that the urine of 16-year-olds who used e-cigarettes contained higher levels of carcinogenic compounds than that of participants who didn’t smoke or vape.

More research is needed before conclusions on the long-term effects of vaping can be drawn, but early findings have experts concerned about the use of e-cigarettes.

“This study is showing that there is no safe way to vape. Lungs were made to breath clean air, and if they’re breathing anything that’s not clean air, it’s not healthy,” said Choi.

Vaping is more prevalent among Americans under the age of 30 compared with other age groups. Data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that more than 3 million high school students used e-cigarettes — a 78 percent increase from 2017.

“E-cigarette companies are promoting vaping flavors, like bubblegum and watermelon, that are very appealing to children,” said Shah.

In effort to curb vaping among teens, some states and cities have raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also issued a proposal for more restrictions on e-cigarettes.

Regulations are just half the battle in reducing e-cigarette use among teens, said Shah.

“We have to have a boots on the ground perspective from parents,” she said. “They need to be aware of what their kids are doing and talk to them about the health effects of vaping in both the short and long term.”

The most recent study also shows the need for doctors to learn about the vaping habits of patients of all ages, so they can keep an eye out for potential health effects, said Shah.

“The study raises awareness from a medical perspective that we need to be monitoring the effects of vaping,” she said. “A decade ago, we started asking every patient if they smoke and if they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. Now, there has to be questions from doctors to patients — both adults and children — about vaping.”