Many people think that vaping—using an electronic cigarette to inhale vapors that usually contain nicotine—is safer than smoking cigarettes. A new study suggests that not only is vaping bad for your lungs, appears to be bad for your baby in years to come.
The people who make and cell e-cigarettes and the liquids that are used to make the vapors have suggested that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes even during pregnancy. They base this idea on the fact that there are fewer toxic chemicals in vapors than in tobacco smoke. About half of women who smoked before they became pregnant continue to smoke during their pregnancy and afterward.
Mark Olfert and his colleagues at the University of West Virginia have been investigating that claim that vaping is safer than smoking tobacco for several years. They have shown in their research that vaping produces the same problems with the way blood vessels in adults react that are seen with smoking. They decided to see if this causes problems to fetuses in the uterus if the mother vapes during the pregnancy.
In their recent study, they exposed pregnant and breastfeeding rats to the vapors from vaping and found that it affected the way blood vessels work in the brain. Because they looked at the brains of the offspring at several time points up until adulthood, they found that this effect lasts all the way up to the time the rat pups were adults.
The researchers tested vapors that contained nicotine and vapors without nicotine and found the same results. This means that it may not be the nicotine that is causing the problems in the brain’s blood vessels but that the problem is with something else in the liquids used in e-cigarettes.
The pregnant rats were exposed to either nicotine or non-nicotine vapors for one hour a day, five days a week, starting on the second day of the pregnancies. This exposure was kept up until the rat pups were weaned from their mothers. Another set of pregnant rats did not receive any vapors during their pregnancies or while breastfeeding.
The researchers then examined the rat pups at 1 month after weaning, 3 months after weaning (about the equivalent of being an adolescent rat), and 7 months after weaning (full adulthood in a rat lifetime). They evaluated a blood vessel called the middle cerebral artery to see how well it reacted to certain chemicals. Normally, the middle cerebral artery (which supplies about half of the blood flow in the brain) will dilate or get narrower in response to exposure to certain chemicals.
Blood vessels in the brain need to dilate or get wider as the brain needs more or less blood blowing through it.
The researchers found that the middle cerebral arteries in the pups exposed to vapors had a more than 50% reduction in how well they dilated. This poorer ability to react was seen at all three stages of the pups’ lives, even into their adulthood. This kind of decreased ability to dilate is typically seen with diseases of the blood vessels, the study notes.
There was no difference seen in the other aspects of the health of the pups. The sizes of the litters were similar between the groups exposed to vapors and the group that got plain air. The size of the rat pups was also similar in all three groups.
Smoking tobacco during pregnancy has been linked to premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and to an increased risk of your baby dying from sudden infant death syndrome. Smoking during pregnancy has also been shown to impair the development of the lungs and the brain in children of women who smoked while they were pregnant and has been linked to impaired learning during adolescents. Although e-cigarettes have been promoted as a way to help stop smoking cigarettes, most young users vape for pleasure rather than to stop smoking.
The researchers noted that there are already studies that show vaping increases the stiffness of blood vessels. This kind of poor dilation and narrowing is associated with a decline in brain function and developing of small bleeds in the brain. It is also linked to high blood pressure and a greater risk of heart attack and stroke.
Although this study was done in rats, it is an important finding that points to the lasting dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes during pregnancy.