Can Vaping Cause Lung Cancer?
Written by: SERO Board-Certified Physicians
Over the past few decades, there has been an impressive campaign against smoking. The rate of smoking in the United States has decreased over time, but as of 2016 38 million Americans still smoked. Many people claim that vaping has led to a reduction in smoking, and some have used it as a bridge to quit smoking. However, one question persists: is there a link between vaping and lung cancer?
What is Cancer?
In order to understand the link between vaping and cancer, it is important to understand what cancer is and how it develops. In general, cancer is the uncontrolled division of cells that have undergone mutations in DNA. Cells have proteins that signal to the cell when to divide and when to rest. If a DNA mutation happens that damages the function of these proteins, cells could divide in an uncontrolled manner, leading to cancer. These cells can release certain hormones or proteins that damage nearby healthy organs. Cancer can also cause damage by merely crowding out healthy organs, impairing their function. This is often called mass effect. DNA mutations can happen in many ways, including:
- Errors in the DNA replication process
- Metabolic/hypoxic intracellular changes leading to DNA changes
- Damage to the DNA from sources of radiation, such as the sun
- Chemicals that directly damage DNA, such as those from tobacco smoke
There has been debate regarding whether or not chemicals from e-cigarettes can also cause cancer. There are some important points to consider when answering this question.
What is the Difference Between an E-Cigarette and a Regular Cigarette?
When someone smokes a regular cigarette, there are many side effects on the body. The tobacco, nicotine and tar in a cigarette causes damage to the lungs in more ways than one. What makes an e-cigarette different from a regular cigarette?
An e-cigarette is operated with a battery and delivers its nicotine in a way different from a regular cigarette. Nicotine is addictive and makes it hard to quit habits such as smoking and vaping. For centuries, people have delivered nicotine to their body using regular cigarettes. A regular cigarette releases the nicotine using tobacco and a flame. In contrast, e-cigarettes heat a liquid instead of smoking tobacco. This releases nicotine in a way that is considered smoke-free.
What are Some of the Side Effects of E-Cigarettes?
There are a number of side effects that people may experience when using an e-cigarette, the most common side effect being a nicotine addiction. While nicotine is addictive, there are other side effects that individuals should be aware of. Some of these include:
Irritation of the Mouth: The chemicals released while using an e-cigarette can cause damage to the inside of the mouth. Some of this could come from overheating of the liquid.
Burping: While people are inhaling vapor, some of it could enter the stomach. This leads to burping.
Headache: People who use high levels of nicotine in their e-cigarette can develop a powerful headache. In some cases, these could resemble a migraine.
Increased Saliva Production: Another side effect of using e-cigarettes is increased salivation. This could come from the nicotine itself as well as the mechanical stimulation of having something in the mouth.
Throat Pain: Similar to the mouth irritation that people experience, similar impacts are seen in the throat. Inhaling chemicals into the throat can irritate the lining, leading to pain.
Can Vaping Cause Lung Cancer?
One of the major concerns that people have is that vaping can lead to lung cancer in a way that mirrors that of cigarettes. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed e-cigarettes do have detectable levels of toxic chemicals and known carcinogens. People who are exposed to these chemicals have a higher chance of developing cancer. Even though e-cigarettes are marketed as being tobacco-free, there are many more dangerous chemicals in regular and e-cigarettes than mere tobacco. The FDA has also detected antifreeze in e-cigarettes, a compound that is known to be toxic to humans. Another study was completed that located formaldehyde in numerous cartridges of e-cigarettes. Formaldehyde is used to embalm deceased bodies, and is also known to cause cancer. In some e-cigarettes, this substance was found in amounts higher than that allowed by the EPA.
When these chemicals are inhaled into the lungs, they cause damage similar to that of regular cigarettes. The body responds to foreign invaders, such as these chemicals, by triggers an inflammatory response. Over time, chronic inflammation can trigger chronic diseases, such as:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Heart Disease
Do e-cigarettes help people quit smoking?
Many people attempt to use e-cigarettes as a “bridge” to help them stop smoking. While the toxins in an e-cigarette may be less than a regular cigarette, the evidence to support this bridge is weak. In a recent randomized trial, smoking cessation programs were more effective than e-cigarettes at encouraging smokers to stop. Patients interested in programs should ask their healthcare provider or investigate public health programs such as Quitline NC.
E-Cigarettes and children
Children and e-cigarettes are a major concern. According to surveys performed on high-school students, two million students were using e-cigarettes in 2016. One in five middle schoolers surveyed said they had tried e-cigarettes but had never smoked cigarettes. A number of important points to keep in mind about e-cigarettes and children include:
- The younger people are when they try e-cigarettes or regular cigarettes, the more likely they are to become addicted
- Children’s brains are still developing. Nicotine, among other chemicals, can inhibit this brain development
- When children are exposed to e-cigarettes, it could lead to conventional smoking later
- Because many of the e-liquids are fruit-flavored, many children have been harmed by mistaking it for juice. The high nicotine concentration requires an emergency room visit and could be life-threatening.
In summary, smoking an e-cigarette is still risky and should not be considered a “safe” alternative to regular cigarettes. Early information has revealed that vaping does have significant risks, including higher rates of heart disease and lung cancer. Furthermore, people with chronic lung conditions, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis, are at an even greater risk of developing serious health problems, such as cancer. Anyone with concerns about e-cigarettes and cancer should seek the guidance of medical professionals.