Vaping May Be Just As Bad As Smoking When It Comes to Lung Disease-Causing Bacteria

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Vaping may carry the same risk as cigarette smoke when it comes to making the lungs more susceptible to infections, scientists have found.

To reach their conclusion, researchers grew bacteria in a lab, and exposed them to e-cigarette vapour and cigarette smoke. The bugs in question—Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa—can live in the lungs without causing problems.

But they often lurk in the lungs of people with conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), bronchitis and asthma, study co-author Dr. Deirdre Gilpin of the School of Pharmacy at Queen's University Belfast told Newsweek, where they can cause infections and increase inflammation.

"This can result in the lungs becoming damaged and not able to function well," Gilpin said.

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When the team treated the bacteria with cigarette smoke and e-cigarette vapour, they became more virulent, or potentially harmful, in a way that could lead to diseases such as COPD and asthma, Gilpin explained. The findings were published in the journal Respiratory Research.

She said she didn't expect to find the changes in bacteria exposed to e-cigarette vapour to be the same, and sometimes greater, than those seen with cigarette smoke. "This suggests that vaping may carry the same risk as cigarette smoke in increasing the susceptibility to bacteria infection," Gilpin said.

However, she also highlighted the team generated smoke and vapour in the lab in the same way. But in real life people smoke and vape differently, as the latter requires a deeper inhalation, and people may vape for longer at each session.

"It's possible that the effects we observed with vape could be potentially greater in real life," she said. Gilpin added there are thousands of different e-cigarette flavours on the market, some of which are toxic. Investigating these in the future and with more patient samples is "really important," she said.

"Ideally we would encourage, particularly young non-smokers, not to start vaping," Gilpin continued. She suggested people trying to quit smoking using alternative methods.

"Vaping is often quoted as being less harmful than smoking," Gilpin stressed. "But less harmful isn't the same as safe, and results from our study suggest that exposing lung bacteria to vape may carry the same risk as smoking.

"We urgently need more research about the long term effects of vaping on the lungs," she concluded.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, who did not work on the research, commented on the paper. Referring to the bacteria which populate the lungs, he told Newsweek the study "tells us that vaping may begin to change the microbiome of our lungs."

"Our lungs' normal microbiomes are made of bacteria that live in an ecological community in a symbiotic relationship with our lungs. When we allow the prevalence of more pathogenic bacteria to increase (e.g. Pseudomonas) and/or become more virulent, then we create a susceptibility to disease initiation and/or progression," explained Galiatsatos.

Asked whether those who use e-cigarettes should stop, he said doctors should tell their patients "to stop smoking, whether combustible or electronic cigarettes."

"More importantly, any activity that has the ability to weaken lung immune defenses and tip the microbiome in favor of pathogenic bacteria, then these persons will be more susceptible to lung-related diseases in the future," Galiatsatos said.

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A stock image shows a man vaping. Scientists are investigating how the habit affects bacteria which live in the lungs. Getty
Vaping May Be Just As Bad As Smoking When It Comes to Lung Disease-Causing Bacteria