Why Vaping Causes a Sore Throat

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10/21/2019 UPDATE: Recent illnesses have been associated with use of e-cigarettes (vaping). Since the specific causes of these lung injury cases are not yet known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends refraining from all vaping products.

Vaping refers to the inhalation and exhalation of a vaporized liquid that may or may not contain nicotine. Unlike smoking, there is no tobacco or other substances that are burned. Because there is a lack of combustion or burning, there is no smoke, only vapor. Vaping offers an alternative to smoking that is tar-free and reduces the amount of other chemicals smokers and bystanders are exposed to. 

Prevalence of Vaping

In 2015, vaping only attracted about 11 non-smokers out of 100. However, in 2018, 40 out of 100 users between the ages of 18–24 were previously non-smokers.

Vaping has also been noticed to attract more youth than adults including nearly 5 percent of middle schoolers and 20 percent of high schoolers. In order to understand the causes of a sore throat, it is helpful to understand how vaping works.

As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

How Does Vaping Work?

There are five functional parts to a vaping system.

  • Tank: The storage system that holds vaping juice (liquid) that is vaporized. The tank also contains a wick for transferring vaping juice to the atomizer.
  • Delivery device: There are three main types of delivery systems. The atomizer consists of a coil that atomizes (or vaporizes) the vaping juice into a vapor that can be inhaled. The cartomizer is similar to the atomizer except that it has a material around the coil called polyfill that soaks in the juice for longer vaping times. The clearomizer has a clear tank with a wick system like the atomizer.
  • Mods: Contain batteries. Internal batteries are usually smaller in size than external battery mods. However Internal battery mods typically do not last as long. The batteries are used to send a current to the coil in the atomizer to heat the juice into vapor. Some mods can also control power usage and the vapor temperature.
  • Air intake: Provides the pathway for your breath to carry the vapor from the atomizer to your mouth.
  • Sensor: Senses when you inhale to create vapor.

What's in Vaping Juice?

The vaping juice consists of:

  • Propylene glycol
  • Vegetable glycerin
  • Nicotine (optional)
  • Food-grade flavoring

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted a policy requiring e-cigarette companies to cease manufacturing and selling flavored vaping products (excluding menthol and tobacco) by the end of January, 2020.

One point of concern in food-grade flavoring is that some vaping juices contain diacetyl. This food-flavoring is commonly found (and is approved by the FDA as a food-flavor) in butter-flavor popcorn, butter, and cheeses.

However, diacetyl that is inhaled in food factories can lead to a disorder known as popcorn lung or bronchiolitis obliterans. Because vaping juice is vaporized, there is concern about what long-term effects may be caused by vaping juices that contain diacetyl.

What Else Could Vaping Juice Contain?

While cigarettes have thousands of toxic substances, vaping is not as benign as advertised. The aerosolized vaping juice may contain:

  • Volatile organic compounds associated with short- and long-term health effects
  • Heavy metals such as lead, nickel, and tin
  • Ultrafine particles that may be inhaled into your lungs
  • Cancer-causing chemicals

It has been found that it is difficult to trust the ingredients in vaping juices, as some juices labeled as having zero nicotine have been found to actually contain a small amount of nicotine.

What Is a Throat Hit?

A throat hit is the sensation that you feel when you inhale nicotine. Smokers experience this same hit when smoking cigarettes, with the harshest sensation being when you smoke a cigar. If you are not used to smoking, the throat hit can cause you to have a sore throat.

The throat hit associated with vaping can be tailored to fit the individual needs of the vaper (the person using the vaping system). You can modify your vaping throat hit the following ways:

  • Stronger hits are associated with increased nicotine in vaping juice.
  • Increased levels of propylene glycol (compared to vegetable glycerin) has an increased hit.
  • Smaller mouthpiece which narrows the airflow can cause a harsher throat hit.
  • Dry hit, when the juice isn't transferred to the atomizer coil, causes a burning hit.
  • Increasing power with a mod increases the temperature, which causes a stronger throat hit.
  • Stronger flavors will provide a strong throat hit, while smoother flavors weaken the hit.

Likewise, the opposite of what is listed above can cause a more mild throat hit, so the experience can be tailored to an individual's desired experience.

vaping sore throat
 Verywell / Luyi Wange

Causes of a Sore Throat

There are a few possible causes.

Nicotine Withdrawal

If you have recently switched from smoking to vaping, the type of juice you are using may very well be the cause of your sore throat. If you are using a vaping juice that is either lower in nicotine concentration or maybe doesn't have nicotine in it, you may experience nicotine withdrawal.

A sore throat is a common and expected side-effect to nicotine withdrawal. Some may suggest that you use vaping as a smoking cessation and method to wean off nicotine, however vaping is not an FDA-approved smoking cessation tool. Getting a nicotine patch or another smoking cessation method would be better than trying to use vaping.

Propylene Glycol Concentration

Having a high concentration of propylene glycol can cause you to have a sore throat. While this can give you an increased throat hit sensation, it may also be the cause of your sore throat.

Staying properly hydrated and/or increasing the concentration of vegetable glycerin may help resolve or prevent the development of a sore throat from vaping.

Volatile Organic Compounds and Diacetyl

Vaping juices may contain volatile organic compounds or diacetyl which are known to cause throat irritation. If you are experiencing a sore throat, quitting vaping may help relieve your sore throat.

Dry Hit

If you inhale when there is no vaping juice to vaporize, you will experience a dry hit. This is a burning sensation that is very uncomfortable. This will temporarily cause a sore throat but typically resolves without any intervention.

Caution With Vaping

You may not always experience a sore throat with vaping. And the sore throat associated with vaping is not difficult to treat.

However, it is recommended that you quit smoking and vaping. Smoking or nicotine cessation programs should be considered to help prevent any long-term health problems that may be associated with the use of these products.

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