Does Vaping Cause Lung Cancer?

Vape pens, also known as electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, have become increasingly common in the United States, especially among young people. Since 2014, they have surpassed cigarettes as the preferred tobacco product among middle and high school students.

This article discusses how vape pens work and the health risks, including lung cancer, associated with these products.

What to Know About Vaping - Illustration by Laura Porter

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is a Vape Pen?

Vape pens are electronic devices used to heat a liquid, which creates a vapor that can be inhaled.

The e-cigarette oil is created specifically for electronic cigarettes and is referred to as "e-juice," "vape juice," "e-liquid," or "vape liquid." It includes toxic chemicals as well as nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes.

There are many different forms of electronic cigarettes. Some embrace the "electronic" in e-cigarette and look like a USB flash drive, while others could easily be mistaken as a regular cigarette. Increasingly they mimic the look of other everyday items, which is why they are called vape pens.

The use of vape pens is especially concerning for young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nicotine found in e-cigarettes can harm parts of the developing brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. It can also increase the risk of future tobacco use.

Vaping and Lung Cancer

Cigarettes have been available in the U.S. since the 1800s, but it wasn't until 1956 that the relationship between smoking and lung cancer was discovered. Since then, a significant body of research has found that there is a conclusive link between smoking and lung cancer.

Compared to traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are relatively new, having gained popularity in the United States around 2007. E-cigarettes have been studied since their inception in the U.S., but more research is needed to understand the relationship between vaping and lung cancer.

Some of the chemicals found in e-cigarettes are known to cause cancer. The American Lung Association has outlined some of the most common chemicals found in e-cigarettes and their harmful effects.

Chemicals in E-Cigarettes

Chemicals in e-cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association, include:

  • Nicotine: An addictive substance that negatively affects brain development
  • Propylene glycol: An additive in food, which is also used to make antifreeze and paint
  • Carcinogens: Cancer-causing chemicals including acetaldehyde and formaldehyde
  • Acrolein: Also found in chemicals used to kill weeds; causes lung damage that can't be reversed
  • Diacetyl: Linked to a lung disease called popcorn lung
  • Heavy metals: Including nickel, tin, and lead
  • Benzene: A compound found in car exhaust

Possible Benefits

One 2013 study found that the level of toxic chemicals in vape pens was lower than traditional cigarettes. Some people use vape pens as an alternative to cigarettes, but no e-cigarettes have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe or effective tool to quit smoking.

More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, including lung cancer risk. If you want to quit smoking, talk to your healthcare provider about FDA-approved options.

Risks

There are substantial risks associated with using vape pens. Vape pens contain many toxic chemicals that are harmful to the human body, which can lead to disease.

Although more research is needed to understand the full scope of the adverse health effects of e-cigarettes, there is evidence that links them to some serious health problems.

EVALI

E-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury (EVALI) is the most significant known adverse effect of vaping. Reported cases of EVALI have increased with the rise of e-cigarette use in the United States.

Symptoms of EVALI include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

To prevent EVALI, the CDC recommends avoiding tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing e-cigarettes, especially ones that have been modified from the manufacturer or have been purchased from casual sources, like friends or dealers.

The CDC also recommends avoiding e-cigarettes that contain vitamin E acetate, which has been strongly associated with the EVALI outbreak.

Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine is an addictive chemical that is especially harmful for the developing brain.

A study of 11th and 12th-grade students in California found that students who had used e-cigarettes were 6.17 times more likely to start smoking cigarettes compared to students who had never used e-cigarettes.

Popcorn Lung

"Popcorn lung," known clinically as bronchiolitis obliterans, is a lung disease that is caused by exposure to diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a common chemical used in many flavored e-cigarette oils. It was previously used to flavor microwave popcorn, hence the name.

According to the American Lung Association, inhalation of this chemical can cause scarring of the lungs over time, narrowing the airways. This can lead to symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Lipoid Pneumonia

Lipoid pneumonia is a rare type of pneumonia caused by lipids or fats in the lungs. E-cigarette oil is a type of lipid, and when inhaled over time, can lead to lipoid pneumonia.

The symptoms of lipoid pneumonia are similar to other lung diseases and can include cough or shortness of breath. This disease can be especially dangerous because it is difficult to diagnose and treat.

Collapsed Lung

Pneumothorax is the clinical term for a collapsed lung. Signs of a collapsed lung typically begin with chest pain and can include symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, bluish skin (which is a sign of low oxygen), rapid breathing and heart rate, and a dry cough.

More research is needed to definitively link vaping to this condition, but recent case studies suggest that it is plausible.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you or someone you love uses e-cigarettes, talk to your healthcare provider. They can provide resources, support, and information to help quit smoking.

Summary

E-cigarettes contain toxic and addictive chemicals. While numerous negative health effects of e-cigarettes have already been reported, the long-term effects of vaping, including risk of lung cancer, are still being studied.

A Word From Verywell

E-cigarettes may seem harmless and can be perceived as "cool," but the conditions a person can develop from using them over time are serious. Though the long-term risks of e-cigarette use are still being researched, proceed with caution. Vaping is risky for adults and never safe for young people.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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