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What Are E-Cigarettes?

E-cigarettes look high tech, so it's easy to believe the hype that they're a safe alternative to smoking. Unfortunately, they're not: E-cigarettes are just another way of putting nicotine — a highly addictive drug — into your body.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered smoking devices often designed to look and feel like regular cigarettes. They use cartridges filled with a liquid that contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. A heating device in the e-cigarette converts the liquid into a vapor, which the person inhales. That's why using e-cigs is known as "vaping."

Because e-cigarettes don't burn tobacco, people don't inhale the same amounts of tar and carbon monoxide as they would with a regular cigarette. But anyone using an e-cig still gets an unhealthy dose of nicotine and other chemicals.

Electronic cigarettes started out being marketed to smokers as a way to help them quit. Now that e-cigarettes have gone mainstream, regulators and scientists are taking notice. Expect to see more information coming out about e-cigarettes and their health effects.

What's the Danger?

E-cigarettes don't fill the lungs with harmful smoke, but that doesn't make them a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes.

When you use ("vape") an e-cigarette, you're still putting nicotine — which is absorbed through your lungs — into your system. In addition to being an addictive drug, nicotine is also toxic in high doses. It was once even used as an insecticide to kill bugs.

Nicotine affects your brain, nervous system, and heart. It raises blood pressure and heart rate. The larger the dose of nicotine, the more a person's blood pressure and heart rate go up. This can cause an abnormal heart rate (arrhythmia). In rare cases, especially when large doses of nicotine are involved, arrhythmias can cause heart failure and death.

After its initial effects wear off, the body starts to crave nicotine. You might feel depressed, tired, or crabby (known as nicotine withdrawal), and crave more nicotine to perk up again. Over time, nicotine use can lead to serious medical problems, including heart disease, blood clots, and stomach ulcers.

Kicking the Habit

Because nicotine is so addictive, the best way to avoid the trouble of trying to quit smoking or stop using e-cigs is never to start.

If you smoke and want to quit, e-cigarettes probably aren't your best option. Using an e-cigarette mimics the experience of smoking tobacco cigarettes more closely than other quitting options, like nicotine gum or patches. You don't want to successfully give up smoking only to find you're now hooked on e-cigarettes.

If you've already tried using e-cigs and think you might be getting dependent on nicotine, you'll need to follow the same steps for quitting as you would with tobacco:

Nicotine is an addictive drug. It's almost never easy to quit using it once you've started. The best strategy is to never start in the first place. If it's too late for that, remind yourself that it is possible to quit. Other people succeed, and so can you!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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