E-cigarettes and vapes are supposedly a safer alternative to more traditional means of smoking, but a new study from Ohio State University finds that just a few months of regular vaping can seriously interfere with one’s oral health.
They often look like children’s toys, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and even offer numerous fruity, appealing flavors, but e-cigarettes are anything but child’s play. After examining the mouths of some seemingly healthy habitual vapers, researchers found a great deal of “potent infection-causing bacterial organisms.” Such bacteria put e-cigarette smokers at a much greater risk of developing numerous mouth problems, ranging from gum disease to cancer.
Although no participants had any full-blown mouth problems yet, their oral bacteria composition closely matched that of people with periodontitis, which is a serious gum condition that can lead to tooth loss and even lung or heart disease if left unaddressed.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than all that was the revelation that even vapers who avoided nicotine had the same oral warning signs. This suggests that these mouth developments aren’t related to nicotine at all, and instead stem from the heated and pressurized liquids used in e-cigarette or vape cartridges.
“Vaping is such a big assault on the oral environment, and the change happens dramatically and over a short period of time,” comments senior study author Purnima Kumar, professor of periodontology at The Ohio State University, in a university release.
Some of the study’s participants had been long-time cigarette smokers before switching over to vapes. Incredibly, after just 3-12 months of using e-cigarettes, even these life-long cigarette users saw their oral health decline. So, basically, a few months of vaping was worse for their mouths than years of smoking cigarettes.
“If you stop smoking and start vaping instead, you don’t move back toward a healthy bacterial profile but shift up to the vaping profile,” Professor Kumar notes. “Knowing the vaping profile is pathogen-rich, you’re not doing yourself any favors by using vaping to quit smoking.”
For the study, plaque samples were collected from the gums of 123 people with no outward signs of poor oral health. Among participants, 25 were strictly cigarette smokers, 25 were non-smokers, 20 were e-cigarette users, 25 were former cigarette users who switched to vapes, and 28 were simultaneously using both cigarettes and vapes.
We all have bacteria in our mouths, but most oral bacteria are beneficial. For example, researchers chose to collect plaque samples because the bacteria found underneath our gums usually acts as a protective force against oral disease. Such bacteria are the least likely to be influenced or changed by leftover pieces of food, toothpaste, or tobacco. Trouble starts when foreign, harmful bacteria makes its way into the mouth.
After collecting samples from participants, DNA deep sequencing was performed to identify the different types of bacterial microbes residing in the subject’s mouths.
Concerning young participants (ages 21-34) who had never smoked cigarettes before vaping for 4-12 months, researchers say they were shocked by what they found. Their “microbial communities” showed high levels of stress, as evidenced by a mucus-like slime. Essentially, this means that the bacteria being introduced into vapers’ mouths is being seen as a foreign threat by their immune systems, triggering inflammation. Higher levels of certain proteins were also detected, meaning the immune system in vapers’ mouths is on “stand-by.”
These changes in the mouth make one’s chances of developing oral disease much higher.
“The reason we’re all healthy is because our immune system has recognized these bacteria and their functions since birth and has established a sense of harmony,” Professor Kumar says. “The problem is when you throw a curveball with an environmental shift like this, your immune system doesn’t recognize the bacteria as friends anymore. You have to call the police on them, and that causes a huge inflammatory response.”
The team at OSU had expected to see cigarette smokers’ mouths improve after switching to vapes, but the opposite was observed. Vaping worsened their oral health.
“And if you smoked and vaped at the same time, which of these two effects overwhelms your system? It was vape,” professor Kumar adds.
The study’s authors also conducted a follow-up experiment in which they exposed an artificial “fake mouth” to nicotine-free vape smoke. That smoke, which contained the viscous sugar alcohol fluids glycerol and glycol, fostered the development of harmful bacteria. So, it’s quite clear that vapes don’t need nicotine to harm one’s oral health.
E-cigarettes and vapes are still relatively new pieces of technology, and they just haven’t been around long enough for modern medicine to fully understand what they’re doing to our bodies. Whether or not someone chooses to indulge in vaping is entirely their choice, but it’s always a good idea to at least be aware of the possible health repercussions.
The full study can be found here, published in Science Advances.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor for Ladders News.