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Vaping increases infection risk by altering oral microbiome © Getty Images

Vaping increases infection risk by altering oral microbiome

Published: 29th February, 2020 at 08:00
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Study finds gum disease or infection found in 42.5 per cent e-cigarette users compared to 28.2 per cent in non-smokers.

  • Like cigarettes, vapes have been shown to alter the oral microbiome
  • Gum disease or infection significantly higher among cigarette smokers than in vapers and non-smokers.
  • Porphyromonas bacteria, associated with poor gum health, found in high abundance in e-cigarette smokers.

E-cigarettes affect the bacteria in our mouths, making users more prone to inflammation and infection, say US researchers.

Our mouths are home to a zoo of bacteria and other microorganisms – collectively known as the oral microbiome.

Previous research has shown that traditional cigarettes increase the risk of gum disease by altering this microbiome, creating an environment in which certain infection-causing bacteria thrive.

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E-cigarettes – electronic devices that emit a vapour containing nicotine – are thought to be less harmful than cigarettes, but their relative newness means that there’s been limited research into their long-term safety.

“The oral microbiome is of interest to us because research shows that changes in its microbial community as a result of environmental and host factors contribute to a range of health issues, including cavities, gum disease, halitosis and medical conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers,” said Dr Deepak Saxena, who co-authored the study with colleagues at New York University’s College of Dentistry.

In the study, Dr Saxena and colleagues analysed the oral microbiome of 119 participants from three groups: e-cigarette users, cigarette smokers and non-smokers. Gum disease or infection was significantly higher among cigarette smokers (72.5 per cent) than in e-cigarette users (42.5 per cent) and non-smokers (28.2 per cent).

Using a genetic sequencing technique, the researchers profiled the microbial communities of the three groups. In the e-cigarette users, they found an abundance of Veillonella and Porphyromonas bacteria, which are associated with poor gum health. The increase in Veillonella was also found in cigarette smokers.

The researchers also found that the altered microbiome of the e-cigarette users resulted in an increased inflammatory response compared to non-smokers and cigarette users, as measured by the amounts of certain inflammation-related proteins called cytokines.


“Our study suggests that vaping electronic cigarettes causes shifts in the oral environment and highly influences the colonisation of complex microbial biofilms, which raises the risk for oral inflammation and infection,” said Dr Saxena.

Reader Q&A: Is vaping safe?

Asked by: Stacey Hughes, Buckinghamshire

The most recent research shows that vaping is much less bad for you than smoking. If you already smoke cigarettes, then switching completely to e-cigarettes will significantly improve your health. But smoking is so bad for you that you could switch to skydiving and still come out ahead! Skydiving every day for 70 years gives a 23 per cent chance of early death, while lifelong smokers have a 50 per cent chance of dying before 70.

The real question is: can you safely take up recreational vaping, even if you don’t already smoke? The evidence for this is much less clear. Nicotine by itself doesn’t cause cancer, and vape juice doesn’t contain any of the 70 known carcinogens that are present in tobacco. But it does contain other chemicals, such as propylene glycol. When this is heated by the electric element in the e-cigarette, it can create formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic. The different flavour chemicals used in vape juice are all organic compounds, and these can also be altered by the heating element.

Vaping has only been around for a decade, so it is still too soon to be sure of long-term effects. Since e-cigarettes will get you hooked on nicotine just as surely as tobacco does, it doesn’t seem wise to take up a whole new addiction.

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James Lloyd
James LloydStaff writer, BBC Science Focus

James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.


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