What is Vaping: A Complete Guide

By Michael Kopf, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 19, 2022

Vaping is a term for using e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that create a vapor by warming and evaporating a liquid inside the device, often called vape “juice.”

In the U.S., 6% of adults vape. It’s more common among younger people: Vaping is the most commonly used tobacco product among youths, with an estimated 3.6 million middle and high school students having used an e-cigarette in the past month.

Some people start vaping because they believe it’s a safer alternative to cigarettes.

But the safety of vaping is questionable, and there’s more you should know before you start.

In this article, I’ll explain more about what vaping is, how it works, and how it’s different from smoking.

I’ll also explain the health effects of vaping and vaping devices, and talk about whether vaping is addictive.

Finally, I’ll explore whether to quit vaping.

Trying to quit vaping? Chat with a doctor today to discuss your options.

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How is Vaping Different From Smoking?

When you smoke cigarettes (or a cigar or pipe), tobacco and other substances are burned, and you inhale the smoke.

Vaping does not involve smoke.

As the name suggest, people who vape inhale vapor produced by an electronic cigarette.

Like cigarette tobacco, the vapor usually contains nicotine.

In fact, some vape pods contain as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.

Nicotine raises your blood pressure and increases your adrenaline, which can raise your risk of heart problems.

Both smoking and vaping are addictive. 

The vapor produced has a less pungent smell than cigarettes, and is often flavored.

These flavorings are one reason vaping has become so popular with young people.

In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled thousands of flavored vape products off of shelves, but regulatory loopholes and lax enforcement mean that fruit and candy varieties have remained available and popular among young users. 

Another difference from cigarette smoking: Some vaping liquids contain cannabinoid (CBD) oils and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), substances from cannabis plants.

THC is the substance in marijuana that makes people “high.”

How does vaping work?

When you vape, a battery-powered device—called an e-cigarette, a vape, or by a brand name, like JUUL—heats a liquid known as e-liquid or e-juice.

The e-juice evaporates, producing vapor that the user inhales.

Bystanders can also inhale the vapor, in the same way they might inhale secondhand smoke.

What Are the Health Effects of Vaping?

Since people have only been vaping for a short time, the long-term health effects are still being studied.

What we do know is that nicotine has health implications, and most e-liquids contain nicotine—even if the package says that the e-liquid does not contain nicotine.

Nicotine’s side effects include:

  • Addiction 
  • Slowing brain development in teenagers and young adults
  • Altering mood
  • Temporarily masking mental disorders
  • Lowering impulse control
  • Increasing risk of health issues in fetuses and infants

The vapor produced during vaping contains other harmful substances that can irritate the lungs.

Vaping is unsafe for pregnant women, and should especially be avoided around children. 

What are Vaping Devices?

Vaping devices are battery-powered devices that produce vapor by heating liquid.

They are also called electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes, vape pens, mods, e-hookahs, tank systems, and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).

Vaping devices can look like traditional cigarettes, but can also look like everyday items, such as USB memory sticks and pens.

All the shapes have similar components: a mouthpiece used to inhale the vapor, a battery, a heating element, and an e-liquid cartridge. 

What’s in vaping liquid?

More than 99 percent of vaping liquids can contain nicotine.

They may also contain cannabinoid oils (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), flavorings, and other additives and substances. 

Nicotine is a stimulant found in tobacco products and is highly addictive.

THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, responsible for the “high.” 

Vaping liquids come in a variety of flavors such as bubble gum, fruit, candy, mint, and menthol.

Certain flavorings, like diacetyl, which creates a “buttery” flavoring, can lead to severe lung problems when inhaled.

Some e-cigarette products have been found to contain carcinogenic and toxic chemicals harmful to overall health, as well as high levels of nickel and chromium, which may be the result of the heating coils.

Seemingly safe additives used in e-liquid can cause problems, too.

Vitamin E acetate is a dietary supplement that is safe to ingest or apply to your skin.

It’s commonly used as a thickening agent in e-cigarettes containing THC.

But new evidence ties vitamin E acetate to e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).

EVALI is a dangerous lung disease that causes symptoms like shortness of breath, fever, and rapid heart rate

Is Vaping Addictive?

The vapor from vaping almost always contains nicotine, which is a highly addictive substance.

E-cigarettes can also dispense THC, which can be addictive.

Other risks you should know with vaping

Vapes can explode when their batteries overheat or are defective; reported cases happened during charging.

The e-liquid should not be swallowed or come in contact with the skin or eyes: it can cause vomiting, nausea, and irritation.

E-cigarettes should be kept out of the reach of children.

Should You Quit Vaping? 

You may have heard that vaping can be a useful way to quit smoking, but vaping is not one of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ways to quit smoking. 

One cartridge can contain the same amount of nicotine found in 20 cigarettes.

Addiction to nicotine can alter your brain, putting you at risk for addiction to other substances.

These alterations can be permanent. 

Since the long-term health effects are not well understood, it’s safer to avoid vaping altogether.

If you’ve already started vaping and want to quit, start by choosing a Quit Day.

When you’ve done this, tell your family and supportive friends about your Quit Day, and throw away all your vaping-related materials.

If you’re struggling to quit on your own, reach out to a healthcare provider or doctor for help and more resources. 

Trying to quit vaping? Chat with a doctor today to discuss your options.

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How K Health Can Help 

Are you looking for help to quit smoking? Speaking to a doctor can help you make the right choice.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a vape?
A vape is a battery-powered device used to produce vapor by heating a liquid. It is also called an electronic cigarette, e-cigarette, vape pen, mod, e-hookah, tank system, and electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS).
How is vaping different from smoking?
When you smoke, you inhale smoke from burning materials like tobacco. When you vape, you inhale vapor that’s produced from heating a liquid using a battery-powered device. Vapes do not produce smoke, and do not have a long-lasting smell like the odor produced while smoking.
What are the risks of vaping?
The vapor produced by an e-cigarette usually contains nicotine, and may also contain THC, additives, flavors, and other chemicals. Nicotine is addictive and can alter brain development in adolescents and young adults. It may also lead to the use of other substances.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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Michael Kopf, MD

Dr. Michael Kopf graduated cum laude from the University of Miami, where he majored in Film Studies and English Literature. He went on to receive his medical degree from Ross University School of Medicine. Michael trained in Internal Medicine at Danbury Hospital-Yale School of Medicine, and went on to complete fellowships in Hematology/Oncology at SUNY Downstate and Palliative Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In addition to his work in medicine, Michael enjoys watching and reading about movies, writing, and spending time with his wife and yorkie, Excelsior.