A teenage girl with smoke leaving her mouth and obscuring her face.

Adolescents and young adults who use e-cigarettes (who “vape”) are significantly more likely to contract COVID-19 than those who don’t, according to a recent study led by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study, published August 11 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that among young people (ages 13-24) who were tested for the virus that causes COVID-19, those who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

Houston pulmonary and critical care specialist Sandeep Gupta, MD, affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital, says the findings are alarming but not surprising, given that vaping damages the respiratory system, and COVID-19 is a respiratory illness .

E-Cigarette Epidemic Among Youth

E-cigarette use continues to rise. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, about one-quarter of U.S. youth and young adults have tried e-cigarettes . A 2019 study revealed that nearly a third of high school students and 10.5 percent of middle school students were e-cigarette users.

Vaping and Lung Damage

Despite its popularity, vaping is now known to cause serious illness and even death. As of February 2020, nearly 3,000 vaping-related lung injury cases or deaths were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 68 confirmed deaths .

“Our lungs are very delicate,” explains Dr. Gupta. “The lining of the lungs contains a very thin interface, with blood on one side and air on the other side. Any substance that can cause inflammation can damage that lining, which can lead to permanent lung damage.”

The aerosol in e-cigarettes contains several harmful and potentially harmful—including inflammation-causing—ingredients: nicotine; ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead .

“The biggest issue with vaping is that it is not regulated, so you can’t be sure of what you’re ingesting,” says Dr. Gupta.

COVID-19 and Lung Damage

The coronavirus is spread from person to person mainly through droplets generated by coughs and sneezes. In the initial stages of the infection, the virus rapidly invades cells in our lungs, potentially causing shortness of breath, cough, pneumonia and in the most severe cases acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. After a patient recovers from the disease, it can take months to fully heal the damage.

“While everyone is at risk for getting COVID-19, people with compromised lung functioning—including individuals who vape or smoke—are more likely to have worse outcomes if they do get sick with COVID-19,” says Dr. Gupta.

Vaping and COVID-19: A Deadly Combination

Vaping has been proven to cause lung damage, and it has also been proven that people with weakened lungs are more susceptible to major complications from COVID-19, regardless of age. So it should come as no surprise that while vaping poses a significant health risk anytime, it’s especially true during the pandemic.

So why do kids still vape?

Dr. Gupta, who has seen several cases of vaping-related hospitalizations and even death, attributes vaping to peer pressure and immaturity. “These kids don’t think about the long-term effects of their actions. They feel invincible. Their frontal lobes are still developing as is their decision-making capability,” he says.

Dr. Gupta is on a crusade to spread the word to youth about the dangers of vaping, often speaking to groups of students at local middle schools and high schools. “By the time they get to the hospital, they’re usually willing to listen, but I’d rather prevent them from being there in the first place,” he says.

If you or a loved one smokes cigarettes or e-cigarettes, now is the time to quit. Talk to your doctor about resources to help you quit.

To schedule an appointment with a Memorial Hermann physician, visit memorialhermann.org/doctors or call (713) 222-CARE (2273).

The information in this article was accurate as of October 28, 2020.

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