Teenagers and young adults between 13 and 24 years old who vape nicotine have a “substantially increased” risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus and coming down with unpleasant symptoms.
The new research says young people who used e-cigarettes and tested for SARS-CoV-2 were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who did not vape, according to a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The researchers behind the study say their findings should not only add evidence to the dangers of vaping, but also evoke the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s attention to review how it regulates the sale of vaping products to young people.
“Young people may believe their age protects them from contracting the virus or that they will not experience symptoms of COVID-19, but the data show this isn’t true among those who vape,” study lead author Dr. Shivani Mathur Gaiha, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a news release.
“This study tells us pretty clearly that youth who are using vapes or are dual-using [e-cigarettes and cigarettes] are at elevated risk, and it’s not just a small increase in risk; it’s a big one,” Gaiha said.
Last year, more than 5 million young people reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, while one million said they vaped daily, according to the FDA. “While cigarette smoking is at an all-time low among high school students, increases in e-cigarette use have reversed progress made in the decline of overall youth tobacco use,” the agency said.
Earlier published research revealed that one in three young adults between 18 and 25 years old are “medically vulnerable” to severe COVID-19 because of their smoking and vaping habits, rather than underlying health conditions.
This study turned to an even younger population to demonstrate what role nicotine vaping products are playing among the large number of coronavirus-infected youth across the country.
What did the study find?
About 4,300 Americans ages 13 to 24 from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories answered online surveys in May about whether they vaped in the last 30 days, according to the researchers. Participants were also asked if they were tested for COVID-19 and if they experienced symptoms of the disease.
An equal number of vapers, non-vapers, age groups, races and genders were included in the study, the researchers said.
People who were tested for the coronavirus and who said they vape were five times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than nonusers, while those who used both e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes in the previous 30 days were 6.8 times more likely to receive a positive test result.
“Using e-cigs is sort of like the anti-mask,” Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, told NBC News. “If we can control vaping in youth, we’ve gone part of the way in helping curb the pandemic.”
People who smoked and vaped nicotine also had a five times higher risk of experiencing COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing, fever, tiredness and difficulty breathing than young people who never participated in the behavior.
This same group of people were also more likely to be tested for the virus than non-smokers; the researchers say this is likely because many testing centers during the study period limited resources to people with symptoms.
The findings were in line with past research on socioeconomic status and COVID-19. People with lower income and those from communities of color had a higher risk of coronavirus diagnosis, according to the study.
Why vaping is bad for health
E-cigarettes filled with nicotine can harm health when people inhale the substance known to have thousands of toxic chemicals that can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and harm the lungs, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
One of the heated chemicals called diacetyl gives the smoke a yummy flavor but does so while damaging small passageways in the lungs; formaldehyde can cause lung and heart disease, and acrolein — a weed killer — is also known to cause respiratory damage, the university said.
One man in his early-20s spent six days in a hospital on a ventilator after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Although Colin Finnerty, 21, was a healthy, active young adult, he vaped all day, everyday since he was 17 years old, according to NBC News.
“Being a 21-year-old, I should not be spending six days in the hospital for lung complications,” Finnerty told the outlet. “I was told so much that, statistically, I was in the clear. But I learned very shortly that was wrong.”
“It’s just weird to think that maybe if I hadn’t bought that first [e-cigarette] ... then maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Or at least not happened as brutally as it ended up happening.”