When you think about how vaping could hurt your body, your mind probably goes straight to your lungs. After all, there have been so many news reports over the last year about people being hospitalized — and even dying — because of illness related to lung injuries from e-cig or vaping products. But in honor of American Heart Month, docs are eager to stress that vaping affects your cardiovascular system too.
One big problem is nicotine. “Nicotine in any way shape or form is bad — whether it’s from cigarettes or vaping, we know these are detrimental to your heart, cardiovascular system, and to your lungs, too," says Brian Lima, MD, director of heart transplantation surgery at Northwell Health and author of Heart To Beat.
The drug damages what are known as endothelial cells, which line the inside of your blood vessels, and that keeps them from functioning as well as they should, says Christopher Snyder, MD, the chief of pediatric cardiology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. Nicotine also affects your platelets, tiny cells that help blood clot. “This makes it hard for blood to get to the distal parts of the bodies, such as the fingertips, and it puts pressure on those blood vessels,” he explains.
Ultimately, that kind of damage and stress can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and heart rhythm problems. Plus, studies have shown that vaping e-cigs raises your systolic blood pressure, Dr. Snyder says.
Vaping also impacts heart-rate variability, a measure of the intervals between heartbeats. Some HRV is good; it means your nervous system is functioning well and your heart is getting healthy breaks while you're at rest. "Variability gives the heart opportunities to relax and take a break,” Dr. Snyder says. But, he adds, nicotine reduces changes in HRV.
Experts don't yet know enough about the other compounds often found in vapes — THC, flavoring, propylene glycol, vitamin E acetate — to be able to say for sure how they could impact the heart. “Those [additives] are even worse in some respects because they are not standardized or regulated,” Dr. Lima says.
“We know [vitamin E acetate], for example, is definitely not safe to inhale and has been designated as one of the primary culprits for causing lung toxicity. It’s unclear if it causes heart damage, but I’d assume the worst,” Dr. Lima adds.
The reason we don’t have all the information on how the other ingredients impact the heart is because modern vapes have only been around since 2003. “We don’t have long-term human outcome data on vaping,” Dr. Snyder says. “But I can be pretty sure that once we have that data, we will recognize how bad it is for your heart, lungs, brain, and kidneys.”
Dr. Snyder hopes that people, especially younger adults, quickly realize that vaping isn't necessarily as safe as they may think.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he says. “What we do know is that these things are going to wind up being not healthy, and if we can encourage teens and tell younger people, especially, that vaping isn’t as safe as it sounds, we should in any way we can.”