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Vaping just one time damages blood vessels and vascular function

Just one use of an electronic cigarette can damage the blood vessels, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Furthermore, harmful vascular effects were detected among the first-time smokers regardless of whether the vapor contained any nicotine.

Vaping is a growing trend among teenagers, including those who never smoked tobacco. In addition, more than 10 million adults in the United States use e-cigarettes. 

While electronic cigarettes are promoted as being a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes, the health risks of vaping are largely unknown. 

To investigate the short-term health impacts of vaping, the researchers performed MRI scans on 31 non-smoking adults before and after smoking an e-cigarette. Analysis of the MRI data revealed that a single incidence of vaping led to reduced blood flow and impaired endothelial function in the femoral  artery, which supplies blood to the thigh and leg. 

The endothelium is a thin membrane that lines the inside surface of blood vessels and is critical for proper blood circulation. When the endothelium is damaged, the arteries thicken. This can cut off blood flow to the heart and to the brain, resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

“While e-cigarette liquid may be relatively harmless, the vaporization process can transform the molecules – primarily propylene glycol and glycerol – into toxic substances,” said Dr. Felix W. Wehrli. “Beyond the harmful effects of nicotine, we’ve shown that vaping has a sudden, immediate effect on the body’s vascular function, and could potentially lead to long-term harmful consequences.”

The research was focused on the use of an e-cigarette that contained propylene glycol and glycerol with tobacco flavoring, but no nicotine. The study participants were instructed to inhale 16 times for three seconds. 

To measure vascular response, the team constricted the vessels of the thigh with a cuff and then examined how soon the blood flowed after its release. The experts also took MRI scans of the femoral artery and vein in the leg before and after each vaping episode to evaluate any changes in vascular function.

Next, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis to determine group differences in vascular function before and after exposure. The study revealed an average reduction of 34 percent in the dilation of the femoral artery. Vaping also led to a 17.5-percent reduction in peak blood flow, a 20-percent reduction in venous oxygen, and a 25.8-percent reduction in blood acceleration after the cuff release. 

Study lead author Dr. Alessandra Caporale said the findings suggest that vaping can cause significant changes to the inner lining of blood vessels.

“E-cigarettes are advertised as not harmful, and many e-cigarette users are convinced that they are just inhaling water vapor,” said Dr. Caporale. “But the solvents, flavorings and additives in the liquid base, after vaporization, expose users to multiple insults to the respiratory tract and blood vessels.”

Dr. Wehrli emphasized that these striking vascular changes were observed after the participants, who had never smoked previously, were only exposed to an e-cigarette one time. 

“I would warn young people to not even get started using e-cigarettes. The common belief is that the nicotine is what is toxic, but we have found that dangers exist, independent of nicotine,” said Dr. Wehrli. “Clearly if there is an effect after a single use of an e-cigarette, then you can imagine what kind of permanent damage could be caused after vaping regularly over years.”

The study is published in the journal Radiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/deineka

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