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clouds of vapor around lungs

I Could Have Told You That: On Secondhand E-Cigarettes/Vaping Exposure and Asthma

First, what the heck is the cloud that comes out of an eCigarette or “vape” called? Because this post is about that and I’ve never actually figured out that answer, beyond just calling it “vapor”. Which, according to this article from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation is incorrect, since it’s not just vapor.1 We will follow their lead and call those noxiously over-scented clouds secondhand aerosol1 in today’s installment of I Could Have Told You That, all about secondhand eCigarette/“vape”exposure and asthma. (Spoiler alert: it’s bad.)

What is secondhand aerosol and how does it affect asthma?

Just as second-hand smoke is what is inhaled and then exhaled from a person’s lungs into the air, second-hand aerosol is the “vapor” version of this. Second-hand aerosol contains nicotine, “ultrafine particles”, and low levels of carcinogenic toxins, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.2 This means that, while not what we think of as “smoke”, it can have effects on lung health.

Exposure to these ultrafine particles emitted by e-cigarettes is stated to be an asthma trigger.2 Propylene glycol, a chemical base is “one of the primary components” of the aerosol produced by eCigarettes—in the short term it can cause airway irritation (as well as eye and throat irritation), and in the long term, can cause asthma in children.2 Some preparations use vegetable glycerin3—both substances are “generally recognized as safe” for consumption in food, but this does not necessarily mean the same for the inhaled, aerosolized form,3,4 where “high doses of particles are being deposited in the human respiratory system”.1 The “flavoring” agents (which also add to the smell produced by eCigarettes) can also be asthma triggers for some individuals as well, such as menthol, benzaldehyde (commonly used in “fruit” flavourings4, cinnamon may also pose specific lung health problems, increasing oxidative stress and inflammatory responses.1

Associated risks of third hand aerosols

Like cigarette smoke, there is a risk of third-hand exposure to nicotine and other chemicals when it is present “clinging” to surfaces in an environment, such as furniture and carpets.1 This can lead to exposure, even when the device is not being used, that can affect breathing if the e-cigarette is used indoors.1 Similarly to thirdhand cigarettes being an asthma trigger5, lingering thirdhand exposure to these aerosol vapors can be as well.

I could have told you that: Secondhand aerosols and asthma

The American Journal of Managed Care published an article on November 11, 2018, about an article in CHEST stating: “Secondhand exposure to electronic nicotine delivery systems linked to asthma symptoms in youth”6 Well, no kidding—I could have told you that? But now, we have the science for why this is the case, and for exactly (or inexactly, because it’s asthma) what reasons e-cigarettes are truly not any lower-risk—with asthma or without—than cigarettes.

And of course, it goes without saying, if you have asthma—and if you have lungs—you should stay away from both smoking and second-hand smoke!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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