Severe breathing issues and even lung damage have been linked to e-cigarette use. Plus, one study says vaping might increase your cancer risk.

By Lauren Mazzo
Updated August 23, 2019
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There's nothing quite like strolling outside on a beautiful spring day, hearing the birds chirp, feeling the sunshine on your face, inhaling the fresh air... and the e-cigarette smoke from the guy in front of you.

Crying, "second-hand smoke!!!" is understandable when it comes to traditional cigs—but the e-cig (or "vaping") code of conduct isn't yet set in stone. Because these techie smoking tools are fairly new, there's still a lot we don't know about the health risks. The common thought is that they're at least less horrible for you than regular cigarettes (and smell better, for the most part). (Here are the e-cigarette health basics you really need to know.)

But the latest news on the possible health effects of vaping is pretty concerning: More than 150 cases of "vaping-related respiratory illnesses" across 16 states have been reported in the past two months, according to The New York Times. In Wisconsin and Illinois, for example, "severe lung disease" and breathing problems—including coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, and even required assistance to breathe in some cases—sent dozens of otherwise healthy teens and young adults to the hospital, CNN reports.

While health officials initially said that these breathing issues appeared to be caused by some kind of infection, "every test has come back completely negative," Thomas Haupt, a respiratory disease epidemiologist with Wisconsin's Department of Health Services, told CNN.

The only discernible link between these cases? Vaping. "But we don't know what they vaped, where they got their vaping liquids, all this needs to be determined at this point," explained Haupt. (Related: What Is Juul and Is It Better for You Than Smoking?)

Even though e-cigarette use—including vapes containing either nicotine or THC, the cannabis compound that makes you feel high—seems like the common link between these cases, CDC representatives told The New York Times that more research needs to be done to confirm the connection, as no single product or device is consistent among the reports.

"E-cigarettes are still fairly new, and scientists are still learning about their long-term health effects," Brian King, deputy director for research translation in the CDC's smoking and health office, told The New York Times. "Adverse respiratory effects associated with e-cigarette use could be the result of a variety of factors," he continued, including certain ingredients in e-cigarette aerosol that could be inhaled deeply enough to damage the lungs.

As a result, the CDC is now urging doctors to report any potential cases of vaping-associated illness to their state and local health departments. The FDA is also collecting information about vaping sickness.

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As if vaping sickness doesn't sound bad enough, scientific research has demonstrated some real risks to e-cigs, too: They may be linked to a higher bladder cancer risk, according to two recent studies presented at the 112th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Urological Association (AUA).

Researchers compared the urine of e-cig smokers to that of non-smokers, examining for five known bladder carcinogenic (a.k.a. cancer-causing) compounds present in either traditional cigarettes or common e-cig liquids. The results were pretty clear; two of those five cancerous compounds were found in 92 percent of e-cig users' urine.

That's not all. Since 90 percent of inhaled nicotine is excreted in your urine, other researchers from New York University decided to see whether e-cig smoke induces DNA damage in the bladder lining. They found that e-cig smoke does indeed induce tumor-causing damage to DNA in the bladder lining, as well as inhibits the repair of DNA, and makes DNA more susceptible to mutation. Translation: cancer risk goes all the way up. (ICYMI, regular smoking changes your DNA too, even long after you quit.)

"These studies raise new concerns about the harmful impact of e-cigarettes on bladder cancer," said Sam S. Chang, MD, MBA, professor of urologic surgery at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, in a release. "We've known traditional smoking raises bladder cancer risk, and given the surge in popularity of e-cigarettes, it's imperative we uncover any potential links to e-cigarette smoke and bladder cancer. This research underscores the importance of smoking cessation (of both traditional and e-cigarettes) for people with bladder cancer, and people looking to avoid it."

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