A Look at Harmful Vaping Side Effects

Doctor is comparing electronic vaporizer and conventional tobacco cigarette. - stock photo

The dangers of cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco may be more well known than the dangers of vaping. Some people might think that using e-cigarettes (“vaping”) is less harmful and may even help them quit smoking regular cigarettes. You may be wondering, is vaping bad for you?

Before reaching for an e-cigarette, it’s important to inform yourself about the many harmful vaping side effects. If you’re already a vape user, you can best protect your health by speaking with a medical provider about smoking cessation treatments.

In This Article:

Is Vaping Bad for You?

Before addressing the common question, is vaping bad for you? let’s first establish the answer to the question, what is vaping? Vaping involves battery-operated devices that people use to inhale an aerosol, which typically (though not always) contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals.1

Vaping is indeed bad for your health, just like smoking regular cigarettes is. Vape aerosol can contain harmful substances such as:2

  • Nicotine
  • Diacetyl (see “What Is Popcorn Lung?” below)
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Chemicals that cause cancer
  • Heavy metals (including lead, nickel and tin)
  • Ultrafine particles that can travel deep inside the lungs

Furthermore, it’s well known that breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke is just as harmful as smoking the cigarettes themselves. However, it’s often thought that the mist released by a vape isn’t as harmful. The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General debunks this theory, pointing out that breathing in secondhand vape mist can indeed cause adverse health effects.3 In other words, whether you smoke cigarettes or vape, you’re causing harm to everyone around you — not just yourself.3

Harmful Vaping Side Effects That You Should Know About

Now that you know vape liquid most definitely contains harmful chemicals and other substances, it's time to take a look at the harmful side effects of vaping. It's important to note that although the dangers of vaping apply to all ages, it can be particularly dangerous to engage in these activities as a child, teen or young adult.3 Let’s explore the risks.

The Risks of Nicotine Exposure

Nicotine can be extremely addictive and can make quitting vaping or smoking much harder. But nicotine is also harmful in and of itself, regardless of the chemical compounds present in the vape liquid along with the nicotine. Nicotine can cause:4

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased risk of psychiatric disorders
  • Narrowing of the arteries
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Gastrointestinal distress

In adolescents and young adults, nicotine can be particularly harmful. Because the human brain is still undergoing significant development, exposure to nicotine at those ages can interfere with how synapses form in the brain. This can cause adverse effects on the areas of the brain that involve learning and attention.3

In addition, nicotine exposure early in life can result in:3

  • Mood disorders
  • Permanent suppression of impulse control
  • Increased risk of addiction to other drugs, including cocaine

What Is Popcorn Lung?

The clinical term for popcorn lung is bronchiolitis obliterans (BO).5 It’s one of the side effects of vaping that can cause permanent damage to your health. This complication gets its colloquial name from an incident in which workers at a microwave popcorn factory developed the condition after breathing in diacetyl — a chemical that was used to flavor popcorn, and which is also present in vape aerosol.5

When inhaled, diacetyl can cause scarring of the small air sacs in the lungs, causing the airway to thicken and narrow. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Although diacetyl was removed from microwave popcorn, it remains present in most e-cigarette brands, which means that vape users are inhaling this chemical directly into their lungs.5

Popcorn lung is not reversible. Once the damage is done, it’s often there for the rest of your life.5

Other Types of Lung Damage: EVALI

Popcorn lung isn't the only vaping side effect involving the lungs. EVALI (which stands for e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury) first popped up on the public health radar in 2019 when doctors began noticing lung injuries in vape users. These injuries were described as being similar to chemical burns within the lungs.6

Within a year, EVALI had resulted in nearly 3,000 hospitalizations nationwide and 68 deaths. Patients continue to show up at hospitals complaining of mysterious respiratory symptoms connected to vape use. Symptoms often include:6

  • Flu-like symptoms (e.g., chills, cough, vomiting and fever)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest, abdominal and stomach pain
  • Weight loss

Research is ongoing, but it’s believed that vitamin E acetate may be the leading culprit for EVALI. Although vitamin E is safe to consume and apply topically to the skin, it can be deadly when inhaled.6

About 96% of people who develop EVALI need to be hospitalized and often require mechanical ventilators because they have trouble breathing on their own.5 But even once they are released from the hospital, patients aren't necessarily in the clear. Some reports indicate that EVALI patients have developed post-discharge relapses and even died from the condition after leaving the hospital.6

The surest way to protect yourself from this deadly lung condition is to avoid all vape products — both e-cigarettes and vapes containing THC (a compound found in cannabis).6

Risk of Cancer

Cigarettes got their nickname — “cancer sticks” — for good reason. E-cigarettes might contain fewer chemicals than cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cause cancer, too. In fact, one chemical that e-cigarettes may contain is formaldehyde,7 the same chemical used to embalm corpses.8

Formaldehyde forms in e-cigarettes when the vape liquid overheats or when insufficient quantities of the vape liquid reach the heating element.6 People who are routinely exposed to formaldehyde are at an increased risk of several types of cancers, including myeloid leukemia and rare cancers of the nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses and nasopharynx.8

Risk of Burn Injuries From Explosions

For a young adult with their whole life ahead of them, the potential vaping side effects might not seem like an immediate problem. If you feel youthful and healthy, without the health problems commonly associated with older age, it can be hard to feel very concerned about what might happen to your health farther down the road. Yet, vaping doesn’t just lead to long-term health problems — it can cause serious, life-changing injuries in the blink of an eye.

There have been incidents when defective e-cigarette batteries have exploded in users’ faces, causing disfigurement and even death. The batteries have also been known to explode while charging, posing a risk of house or car fires. Even inside users’ pockets, e-cigarette battery explosions can cause severe or even fatal burn injuries.9

One study from George Mason University found that more than 2,000 people visited emergency rooms throughout the U.S. during a two-year period because of e-cigarette battery burns and explosions.9

One man, 38-year-old Wake D'Elia, was using an e-cigarette when the battery exploded and killed him instantly. The battery exploded with such force that the metal part of the e-cigarette lodged inside D'Elia's skull.9 His story is just one of many, and learning about the human stories behind the statistics may help convince you to stay away from e-cigarettes.

What If You’ve Already Started Vaping?

If you’ve already started vaping, perhaps in an attempt to avoid or quit cigarettes, you should know that youths who do start vaping are more likely to turn to regular cigarettes later in life.1 In other words, vaping isn’t an effective method for quitting smoking.3 Instead of relying on vaping as a smoking cessation or preventive measure, it’s best to take charge of your health and make a plan to quit nicotine products entirely.

It can be extremely difficult to quit nicotine products on your own. If you're a college student, consider going to your campus health clinic to ask about smoking cessation resources. (Smoking cessation resources are also applicable for those who vape.) If you're still in high school, talk to your parents or guardians, or reach out to your school counselor.

In addition, the following tips may help:10

  • Pick a quit day. Write it on your calendar and add reminders to your phone.
  • Tell your friends about your plans to quit. Ask them to help keep you accountable, such as by staying by your side on your quit day to provide emotional support.
  • Toss out all of your vape supplies the night before your quit day. Throw them out in a campus garbage bin, not in your room’s garbage can, so that you can’t retrieve them when withdrawal hits.
  • Know what to expect. Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, depression, insomnia, trouble concentrating and irritability.
  • Use free apps and other resources to stay on track.
  • When cravings hit, have a plan to keep busy. Enlist a friend and go for a walk together. Do yoga and deep breathing, or stay busy with a hobby.

The most important thing to remember about quitting vaping or smoking is to never give up. It may take a few attempts — or even dozens of attempts. If you stay committed and keep trying, you’re likely to succeed.

Visit GCU's Health and Wellness Clinic To Get Help

Grand Canyon University strives to promote a healthy, safe campus environment for our entire learning community. Our students, faculty and staff can receive a range of healthcare services at the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic — from immunizations to prescriptions to smoking cessation. GCU also offers mental health services at the GCU Office of Student Care. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about joining our learning community in Phoenix.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, Jan. 8). What are vaping devices? Retrieved on Feb 8, 2024. 

Shmerling, R. H., MD. (2023, June 15). Can vaping damage your lungs? What we do (and don’t) know. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved on Jan 10, 2024.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Know The Risks. Retrieved on Jan 10, 2024.

Martin, T. (2022, Nov. 16). What Nicotine Does to Your Body. Very Well Mind. Retrieved on Jan 10, 2024.

American Lung Association. (2016, July 6). Popcorn Lung: A Dangerous Risk of Flavored E-Cigarettes. Retrieved on Jan 10, 2024. 

Turner, T. (2023, Sept. 5). EVALI. Drugwatch. Retrieved on Jan. 10, 2024. 

American Cancer Society. (2022, June 23). What Do We Know About E-Cigarettes? Retrieved on Jan. 10, 2024. 

National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. (2022, Dec. 5). Formaldehyde. Retrieved on Jan. 10, 2024. 

Edwards, E. (2019, July 24). The battery behind dangerous and deadly e-cigarette explosions. NBC News. Retrieved on Jan. 10, 2024. 

10 Ben-Joseph, E. P., MD. (2024, January). Vaping: What You Need to Know. Nemours: TeensHealth. Retrieved on Jan. 10, 2024. 

Approved by the director of Health Services on March 12, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.