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Electronic Cigarettes

Topic Overview

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid nicotine into a vapor that you inhale. Many of them are made to look like real cigarettes. Some even have a light at the end that glows when you inhale.

For some smokers, electronic cigarettes may satisfy nicotine cravings. They can be used in nonsmoking areas. And they may have less of the harmful chemicals that are in cigarette smoke. But they do contain small amounts of harmful chemicals.

These cigarettes are often called e-cigarettes.

How do electronic cigarettes work?

E-cigarettes have three main parts.

  1. The mouthpiece has a cartridge. The cartridge contains a nicotine solution.
  2. A heating element turns the solution into a vapor when you inhale.
  3. A battery provides power to the heating element.

The nicotine in these cigarettes comes in flavors. Flavors include "regular" and "menthol." But they also include hundreds of other flavors like cherry, chocolate, and cola.

A chemical in the vapor turns it white so that it looks like smoke, even when you exhale.

Electronic cigars and pipes are also available.

Are e-cigarettes safe?

Since most of the harm from smoking is not from nicotine but from other things in tobacco, e-cigarettes may be safer than real cigarettes. But they do contain small amounts of harmful chemicals. More research is needed before experts can say for sure whether e-cigarettes are safer than real cigarettes.

The cartridges contain different levels of nicotine. So you could try lowering the nicotine levels over time until you no longer crave nicotine. This is why some people use e-cigarettes as aids to quitting smoking. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes for the use of helping people quit smoking.

It is important to know that the FDA does not regulate the production of e-cigarettes. So there is no government oversight or standard for how much or what chemicals are put in nicotine cartridges. This means that the contents printed on these cartridges may not be true.

An e-cigarette cartridge contains a high concentration of nicotine that, if ingested, can be very poisonous or even fatal. Keep these cartridges out of the reach of children.

If you are thinking about using e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking, talk to your doctor first.

Related Information

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Flouris AD, Oikonomou DN (2010). Electronic cigarettes: Miracle or menace? BMJ, 340: c311.
  • Yamin CK, et al. (2010). E-cigarettes: A rapidly growing Internet phenomenon. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153(9): 607–609.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John Hughes, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised August 15, 2013

Last Revised: August 15, 2013

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