The safety and long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes or other vaping products still aren’t well known. In September 2019, federal and state health authorities began investigating an outbreak of a severe lung disease associated with e-cigarettes and other vaping products. We’re closely monitoring the situation and will update our content as soon as more information is available.
Vaping is often seen as an alternative to traditional cigarettes, especially for those with lung conditions such as COPD, as it is thought to be less harmful. There is, however, insufficient research available on the effects of vaping for people with COPD.
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is caused primarily by exposure to cigarette smoke. The condition affects approximately 30 million people in the United States.
E-cigarettes are relatively new and the research on their effects, especially the potential long-term effects, is limited.
Vaping products usually contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug, although they do not involve tobacco smoke inhalation. Some vaping products may also contain:
- cancer-causing substances or carcinogens
- toxic chemicals
- toxic metal nanoparticles
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require warnings on vaping products that contain nicotine and tobacco from 2018 onward.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that vaping is less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes. But the CDC advise against e-cigarette use by young people, those who are pregnant, or adults who do not currently use tobacco.
There is only limited research that has looked at vaping and COPD.
Vaping and lung inflammation
A small study published in 2016, reports that nicotine-containing vaping products trigger lung inflammation and lung tissue damage. COPD development is associated with these effects. Both cultured human lung cells and mice used in the study showed dependency on nicotine over the course of the research.
Vaping and oxidative stress
A 2017 study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, also reports negative findings. The study included 44 participants, a mixture of conventional cigarette smokers, e-cigarette users, and non-smokers.
Researchers discovered proteins in the airways of e-cigarette smokers that are known to contribute to COPD. All smokers in the study showed markers of oxidative stress associated with lung disease.
Vaping and DNA damage
Research published in January 2018 found that mice exposed to e-cigarette vapor displayed DNA damage in the lungs, bladder, and heart. This damage may increase their risk of cancer, heart disease, and lung problems.
The researchers added that it was possible that e-cigarette smoke may contribute to similar damage in humans.
Overall research consensus on vaping
More research is needed on the health risks of vaping, especially in relation to COPD and other lung diseases.
It may be best to adhere to the advice of the Lung Institute until then, which does not recommend vaping for anyone, especially for people with COPD or other lung diseases.
The institute say that once a person develops a lung disease, such as COPD, emphysema, or interstitial lung disease, they should not inhale anything other than clean air.
COPD symptoms may not appear until the lungs have experienced significant damage.
Symptoms typically get worse over time, especially if people continue to smoke.
- chest tightness
- mucus or sputum that may be clear, white, green, or yellow
- respiratory infections
- shortness of breath
Symptoms in later stages include:
- blue lips or fingernail beds, known as cyanosis
- swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs
- weight loss
Breathing problems eventually make everyday tasks more difficult. They can be disabling in some cases.
COPD occurs when the tubes in the lungs lose their elasticity. This loss causes some air to remain in the lungs after exhaling.
Certain factors increase the likelihood of developing COPD, including:
Exposure to tobacco smoke
Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke causes the majority of COPD cases. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked, and the length of time a person has smoked.
People with asthma who smoke are at even greater risk. Non-smokers may also be more susceptible to COPD if they are exposed to secondhand smoke over an extended period.
Pollution or dust exposure
Living in areas of high pollution or working somewhere with dust or chemical fumes also increase the risk of COPD development. These air pollutants are lung irritants that cause inflammation and breathing difficulties.
Older adults are more likely to have COPD because symptoms typically develop over several years.
Some genetic disorders, including alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, may cause COPD even in non-smokers. These disorders are rare, however.
Fumes from burning fuel
In the developing world, burning fuel for cooking and heating can contribute to COPD, especially when homes are not adequately ventilated. This is less of a risk in developed countries.
Those who have COPD symptoms or think they may have should see a doctor.
A doctor may perform a physical examination and tests to check lung function. The lung function tests can confirm or eliminate a diagnosis of COPD.
Tests used for COPD diagnosis include:
Also known as a pulmonary function test, spirometry detects even early cases of COPD. It involves exhaling forcefully into a tube connected to a spirometer. The device measures how much and how quickly air is exhaled.
An X-ray or CT scan may detect irregularities in the chest that could be signs of COPD.
A type of blood test called an arterial blood gas test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Results can indicate the severity of the COPD.
Smokers should quit using tobacco products to reduce their risk of COPD development and many other health risks.
Those already diagnosed with COPD can reduce their symptoms and prevent further lung damage if they quit smoking.
Nicotine and smoking are addictive and quitting can be challenging. Only 4 to 7 percent of smokers successfully quit “cold turkey.” Other people need to plan how they will quit.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse advise that vaping has not been sufficiently evaluated as a tool to help people quit smoking.
The following tips may, therefore, be a safer alternative for those who wish to give up cigarettes for good:
- Designate a day: Choose a date to quit and try to stick to it
- Collect information: Collect as much information as possible about the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and other challenges associated with smoking cessation. Make a plan to deal with challenges. Failing to prepare for challenging situations is a common reason why people begin smoking again.
- Build a support network: Ask family and friends for help and support. Join a smoking cessation support group or online forum.
- See a doctor: A doctor can provide information and advice about products to help people quit.
- Stay focused: Most people who begin smoking again do so within the first 12 weeks. It is common for people to have the occasional slip, but it is essential for them to recommit to their efforts to quit. There is no need to feel guilty or assign blame, as this is part of the quitting process for many people.
For help staying focused, people can consider contacting the American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine and Tobacco QuitLine or a local support group.
Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of COPD. There is not enough research to definitively say if vaping products also contribute to COPD development as they are relatively new.
Initial research, however, suggests a link between vaping and COPD and the Lung Institute recommend that people with COPD avoid vaping.
Individuals who are concerned about smoking or COPD should see their doctor for advice and a medical assessment. There are many support organizations available to those who wish to quit smoking.