The potential side effects and health implications of vaping

Ajay Bagga Ajay Bagga Senior General Practice Leader at Nuffield Health
The popularity of vapes and e-cigarettes has continued to soar in recent years. These smoking cessation aids contain a blend of nicotine and flavouring and lack several of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes. Despite the assumption that these devices are healthier than smoking, a lot of the health risks associated with them haven't been fully explored.

What is vaping?

Vaping is the act of inhaling the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or vape.

Traditional cigarettes involve heating tobacco to release smoke that contains nicotine. With vaping, a flavoured liquid that may or may not have nicotine in it is heated instead. 

When the user inhales the vape, the device starts to burn this liquid and a vapour is produced that is then inhaled by the user.

Is vaping safer than smoking?

Public Health England suggest that vaping is far less harmful than smoking.

Whilst vaping has and is being used as a tool to help quit smoking to beneficial effect, it has been shown to have some health implications.

Current evidence suggests the act of vaping has the potential to affect both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Can you get addicted to vaping?

Yes, you can get addicted to vaping in the same way you can get addicted to smoking.

This is because most e-liquids contain nicotine (the addictive stimulant found in cigarettes) that is heated and inhaled with the vapour your device produces.

Nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain which is associated with pleasure and reward. Over time, your brain can become dependent on these feelings, leading to nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you quit.

It's important to note that not all vaping products contain nicotine. These devices burn a flavoured liquid that creates a nicotine-free vapour. It’s understood that even 0% nicotine vapes can irritate the lungs and throat by introducing harmful toxins into the body.

Can vaping help me quit smoking?

Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. If you smoke and are having difficulty quitting, vaping might be able to help.

It’s widely accepted that when compared to smoking cigarettes, vaping is less harmful. It provides access to nicotine without exposure to a range of harmful chemicals found in cigarettes.

Vaping can also help satisfy the need for the “hand to mouth” action that many smokers find difficult to shake after quitting.

You may find that gradually reducing the nicotine content of the liquids in their vape over time is a good way to eventually quit vaping too.

What harm can vaping do?

Vaping has been shown to cause inflammatory responses which may elevate your risk of developing cardiovascular complications and lung irritation. 

Whilst the research is ongoing and emerging, studies are starting to indicate a connection between vaping and cardiovascular and respiratory system inflammation.

Are there different types of vape?

These devices come in various shapes and sizes. Some look like traditional cigarettes, whilst others resemble a flash drive or pen.

  • ‘Cigalikes’: these are small, lightweight devices that look like traditional cigarettes.
  • Vape pens: vape pens are larger than cigalikes and typically have a longer battery life. They come in various styles and sizes and are generally cylindrical in shape. They may also resemble a pen or a small tube
  • Pod systems: pod systems consist of a small pod or cartridge that contains e-liquid and a compact battery. They are typically more portable than vape pens and come in open or closed systems. Closed pod systems use pre-filled pods, while open pod systems allow users to refill the pods with their preferred e-liquid.
  • Disposable vapes: these are fully self-contained, pre-filled devices that come ready to use. They are discarded after use. Disposable vapes have come under scrutiny for their lack of sustainability and impact on the environment.

Be wary of unprofessional or online advice

Vapes are legal and can be bought almost anywhere, making them a readily available source of nicotine. Unfortunately, a lack of control over the production and sale of vaping products has led to the circulation of conflicting and false information.

Lots of people have come to assume that vaping is a harm-free alternative to smoking, but the reality is that the long-term implications of vaping are largely unexplored because the data isn’t available yet.

If you are unsure about the health implications of vaping or someone you know has recommended something you’re not sure about, always speak to your GP first.

Last updated Tuesday 21 May 2024

First published on Tuesday 21 May 2024