Surveys suggest that e-cigarette use is up, especially among young people, despite the very real health risks. But other studies suggest that many teens who use e-cigarettes don't even know that they're using nicotine, and may be unaware of the consequences. So, what exactly happens to your body when you use a vape or JUUL?
Most e-cigarettes, including JUUL, are made with aerosolized liquid that, when heated, can be inhaled into your lungs, explains Jeffrey Drope, PhD, scientific vice president of economic and health policy research at the American Cancer Society, who studies tobacco use. The ingredients in the liquids vary from product to product, but most contain glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, plus a bunch of other harmful compounds and carcinogenic toxins. "The major innovation we saw with JUUL was they added benzoic acid to it," Dr. Drope explains. It's a substance that allows the liquid to be aerosolized at a lower temperature, which makes it more comfortable for people to inhale or tolerate. This is just one reason why people seem to be attracted to JUUL.
Given how new e-cigs still are, researchers are just scratching the surface on what the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes like JUUL might be. But here's what we know happens to your body and brain when you JUUL — and long after:
Nicotine results in a different physiological effect for different people, but in general, "you hear people describe a head-rush type sensation," Dr. Drope says. This is because nicotine affects the adrenal glands that release the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline. JUULs specifically use nicotine salts, which the body seems to absorb more efficiently than, say, nicotine in a cigarette, he adds. So, you might feel this sensation faster or in more concentrated amounts with a JUUL.
Although you might not feel this immediately after JUULing, we know that e-cigarette use causes people's arteries to harden and increases their blood pressure, Dr. Drope says. Research has shown that adults who vape are much more likely to have a heart attack or develop coronary artery disease than people who don't use tobacco products. Both the nicotine, as well as the chemical flavors and additives in the liquid, seem to be harmful for the heart.
Likewise, chemicals in e-cigarette liquid are bad news for your lungs and can cause lung disease. Dr. Drope says the "very hot droplets of liquid" that your alveoli absorb when you take a drag of a vape can also cause lung damage. Although many people assume that the vapor is harmless, that's definitely not the case. From a common sense perspective, we know that even drinking super hot beverages can affect your lungs, so of course vapor does, too. Some people may feel coughing or wheezing from the short-term inflammation.
One reason experts are so concerned with teens using JUULs is because the human brain structure doesn't fully develop until you're 25. "The preponderance of e-cigarette users in the U.S. right now are under 25 — and we know that nicotine actually has direct effects on this brain development," Dr. Drope says.
It's important to point out the addictive potential of using e-cigarettes, Dr. Drope says. The nicotine "rush" that's associated with e-cigs is really your brain's reward circuits lighting up and increasing dopamine. Even if your first time using a JUUL might not be memorable or enjoyable, you might feel compelled to try it again because of the way it affects your brain. "Humans definitely have a predisposition — many of us genetically — to become addicted to nicotine," he adds. "It’s a very common physiological response."
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.