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Your Environment. Your Health.

Smoking and Vaping

Introduction

Cigarettes in an ash tray

The link between cigarette smoke and disease, particularly lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, is well known. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Secondhand smoke may also have health effects for those exposed. Cigarette smoke contains hundreds of chemicals, including formaldehyde, lead, tar, and nicotine. Many of these chemicals act as irritants and worsen symptoms in people with asthma and allergies.

Common symptoms of smoke irritation include burning or watery eyes, nasal congestion, coughing, hoarseness, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Both cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke are associated with chronic hay fever and sinus infections, although the underlying reason is not completely understood.1 Also, studies have found that smoking decreases the effectiveness of inhalers used to treat asthma.2

vaping items

Children can be especially vulnerable to environmental irritants, such as cigarette smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of children will suffer a respiratory, food, or skin allergy before they turn 18.3

Cigarette smoke may also promote autoimmune diseases, which are caused by the body’s immune system attacking healthy cells.4 Studies have shown cigarette smoke to be a risk factor in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects joints.5

E-Cigarettes and Vaping

An electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, is a handheld electronic device that simulates the feeling of traditional tobacco smoking. Devices can resemble traditional cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or items like pens or USB sticks. They work by heating a liquid, which typically contains nicotine, to generate an aerosol or vapor that users inhale. Vaping is the commonly used term for the use of e-cigarettes.

Vaping has gained popularity, both in the U.S. and worldwide, particularly among teens and young adults, due to easy availability, targeted marketing, and creative e-liquid flavors. While e-cigarettes are often thought to be safer than tobacco cigarettes, little is known regarding the health effects of their use. Scientists at NIEHS are conducting the E-Cigs and Smoking Study, to develop new biomarkers, or measurable indicators of a normal or abnormal process or condition or disease, of tobacco smoke exposure or e-cigarette use.

What is NIEHS Doing?

Visit the Join an NIEHS Study Website

The following clinical trials are currently recruiting

Chemicals in cigarette smoke – An NIEHS-funded study revealed that acrolein, a substance that is abundant in cigarette smoke, irritates airways by creating free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage cells.6

Menthol and smoking – Research funded by NIEHS found that menthol suppresses respiratory irritation in mice, suggesting that its addition to cigarettes may facilitate smoke inhalation and promote nicotine addiction and smoking-related illness in humans.7

Your genes and smoking – A study including NIEHS scientists found that smoking can influence which genes are turned on or off. The new findings may provide researchers with potential targets for new therapies.8

E-cigarettes and transition to traditional smoking – NIEHS-funded researchers found that use of e-cigarettes with higher nicotine concentrations by youth may increase the subsequent frequency and intensity of traditional cigarette smoking and vaping.9

Cigarette smoking and fertility – NIEHS-funded researchers discovered cigarette smoking is linked to sperm abnormalities that may limit men’s fertility. They found smokers had lower sperm volume and total sperm count, as well as increased sperm motility.10

Further Reading

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)

Self Help

Additional Resources

Related Health Topics


  1. Higgins TS, Reh DD. 2012.  Environmental pollutants and allergic rhinitis. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 20(3):209-214. [Abstract Higgins TS, Reh DD. 2012.  Environmental pollutants and allergic rhinitis. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 20(3):209-214.]
  2. Polosa R, Thomson NC. 2013. Smoking and asthma: dangerous liaisons. Eur Respir J 41(3):716-726. [Abstract Polosa R, Thomson NC. 2013. Smoking and asthma: dangerous liaisons. Eur Respir J 41(3):716-726.]
  3. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) National Center for Health Statistics. 2013. Trends in Allergic Conditions Among Children: United States, 1997–2011. [accessed October 3, 2018]. [Available: CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) National Center for Health Statistics. 2013. Trends in Allergic Conditions Among Children: United States, 1997–2011. [accessed October 3, 2018].]
  4. Lee J, Taneja V, Vassallo R. 2012. Cigarette smoking and inflammation: cellular and molecular mechanisms. J Dent Res 91(2):142-149. [Abstract Lee J, Taneja V, Vassallo R. 2012. Cigarette smoking and inflammation: cellular and molecular mechanisms. J Dent Res 91(2):142-149.]
  5. Chang K, Yang SM, Kim SH, Han KH, Park SJ, Shin JI. 2014. Smoking and rheumatoid arthritis. Int J Mol Sci 15(12):22279-22295. [Abstract Chang K, Yang SM, Kim SH, Han KH, Park SJ, Shin JI. 2014. Smoking and rheumatoid arthritis. Int J Mol Sci 15(12):22279-22295.]
  6. Hochman DJ, Collaco CR, Brooks EG. 2014. Acrolein induction of oxidative stress and degranulation in mast cells. Environ Toxicol 29(8):908-915. [Abstract Hochman DJ, Collaco CR, Brooks EG. 2014. Acrolein induction of oxidative stress and degranulation in mast cells. Environ Toxicol 29(8):908-915.]
  7. Willis DN1, Liu B, Ha MA, Jordt SE, Morris JB. 2011. Menthol attenuates respiratory irritation responses to multiple cigarette smoke irritants. FASEB J 25(12):4434-4444. [Abstract Willis DN1, Liu B, Ha MA, Jordt SE, Morris JB. 2011. Menthol attenuates respiratory irritation responses to multiple cigarette smoke irritants. FASEB J 25(12):4434-4444.]
  8. Joehanes R, et al. 2016. Epigenetic Signatures of Cigarette Smoking. Circ Cardiovasc Genet 9(5):436-447. [Abstract Joehanes R, et al. 2016. Epigenetic Signatures of Cigarette Smoking. Circ Cardiovasc Genet 9(5):436-447.]
  9. Goldenson NI, Leventhal AM, Stone MD, McConnell RS, Barrington-Trimis JL. 2017. Associations of Electronic Cigarette Nicotine Concentration With Subsequent Cigarette Smoking and Vaping Levels in Adolescents. JAMA Pediatr 171(12):1192-1199. [Abstract Goldenson NI, Leventhal AM, Stone MD, McConnell RS, Barrington-Trimis JL. 2017. Associations of Electronic Cigarette Nicotine Concentration With Subsequent Cigarette Smoking and Vaping Levels in Adolescents. JAMA Pediatr 171(12):1192-1199.]
  10. Tang Q, Pan F, Wu X, Nichols CE, Wang X, Xia Y, London SJ, Wu W. 2019. Semen quality and cigarette smoking in a cohort of healthy fertile men. Environ Epidem; doi: 10.1097/EE9.0000000000000055 [Online 25 June 2019]. [Abstract Tang Q, Pan F, Wu X, Nichols CE, Wang X, Xia Y, London SJ, Wu W. 2019. Semen quality and cigarette smoking in a cohort of healthy fertile men. Environ Epidem; doi: 10.1097/EE9.0000000000000055 [Online 25 June 2019].]

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