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Electronic Cigarettes: Their Constituents and Potential Links to Asthma


Purpose of Review

Vaping is gaining popularity in the USA, particularly among teens and young adults. While e-cigs are commonly represented as safer alternatives to tobacco cigarettes, little is known regarding the health effects of their short- or long-term use, especially in individuals with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma. Flavored e-cig liquids (e-liquids) and e-cig aerosols contain airway irritants and toxicants that have been implicated in the pathogenesis and worsening of lung diseases. In this review, we will summarize existing data on potential health effects of components present in e-cig aerosols, such as propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine, and flavorings, and discuss their relevance in the context of asthma.

Recent Findings

Recent survey data indicate that adolescents with asthma had a higher prevalence of current e-cig use (12.4%) compared to their non-asthmatics peers (10.2%) and conveyed positive beliefs about tobacco products, especially e-cigs. Similarly, a study conducted among high school students from Ontario, Canada, indicated a greater likelihood of e-cig use in asthmatics as compared to their non-asthmatic peers. Availability of different flavorings is often cited as the main reason among youth/adolescents for trying e-cigs or switching from cigarettes to e-cigs. Occupational inhalation of some common food-safe flavoring agents is reported to cause occupational asthma and worsen asthmatic symptoms. Moreover, workplace inhalation exposures to the flavoring agent diacetyl have caused irreversible obstructive airway disease in healthy workers. Additionally, recent studies report that thermal decomposition of propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerin (VG), the base constituents of e-liquids, produces reactive carbonyls, including acrolein, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde, which have known respiratory toxicities. Furthermore, recent nicotine studies in rodents reveal that prenatal nicotine exposures lead to epigenetic reprogramming in the offspring, abnormal lung development, and multigenerational transmission of asthmatic-like symptoms.


Comparisons of the toxicity and health effects of e-cigs and conventional cigarettes often focus on toxicants known to be present in cigarette smoke (CS) (i.e., formaldehyde, nitrosamines, etc.), as well as smoking-associated clinical endpoints, such as cancer, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, this approach disregards potential toxicity of components unique to flavored e-cigs, such as PG, VG, and the many different flavoring chemicals, which likely induce respiratory effects not usually observed in cigarette smokers.

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Fig. 1


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants T32-ES-007126 and P50-HL-120100. Research reported in this publication was in part supported by the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration.

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Correspondence to Ilona Jaspers.

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Clapp, P.W., Jaspers, I. Electronic Cigarettes: Their Constituents and Potential Links to Asthma. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep 17, 79 (2017).

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  • E-cigarette and asthma
  • E-liquid and asthma
  • Asthma
  • E-cigarette flavorings
  • E-cigarette and inflammation
  • Allergy