e-Cigarettes vs Cigarettes

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What are e-cigarettes (e cigarettes)?

e-cigarettes are smokable, refillable or replaceable cartridges or containers that hold liquid that contains nicotine, solvents, and flavors. When a person inhales ("vaping"), they are putting a negative pressure on the device that triggers a battery to heat the liquid solution, which is then atomized into inhalable vapor.

Do e-cigarettes contain nicotine?

Depending upon the cartridge, it may contain no nicotine or up to about 16 mg nicotine. One container or cartridge has enough fluid for about 250 "puffs." However, nicotine concentrations and fluid volumes plus the compounds in the fluids can vary, depending upon who makes the e- cigarette.

Are e-cigarettes safe to use, and what are the side effects?

It is not known how safe or how unsafe these products are. Nonetheless, nicotine is considered to be very addictive, and that seems to be a cause for concern. Low doses may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and eye irritation. High doses of nicotine may cause tachycardia, high blood pressure, seizures, coma, and death. Also, the FDA reported detecting ethylene glycol in some of the e-cigarettes and cancer-causing substances called nitrosamines in others.

It took several decades to determine problems associated with tobacco use. It is likely that it will also take some time and study to determine how safe (or unsafe) e-cigarettes are. Experts claim that in order to stop cigarette smoking, it is probably better to use studied material such as nicotine gum, nicotine patches and/or counseling than to use e-cigarettes. They also suggest people don't start smoking e-cigarettes for fun or for quitting any tobacco products. Currently, the FDA is considering several types of regulations concerning e-cigarettes, and perhaps treating them like tobacco products.

Recently, the CDC published a report about the number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine. The proportion of calls to poison centers increased from 0.3% in 2010 to 41.7% as of February 2014. The bulk of these calls are related to small children that open the liquid nicotine containers. The liquid nicotine containers are not childproof; they appeal to young children because of the candy and fruit flavors. They can cause vomiting, and eye irritation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/23/2015

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