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Are e-cigarettes safe? What are the pros and cons of e cigarettes?

Dr Adam Simon photo

Created: 7 June, 2016

Updated: 2 May, 2019

We've taken a look at the science behind e-cigs and whether vaping is really better for you than smoking.

The health risks of cigarette smoking are well known. They're thought to contribute to almost six million deaths each year across the world and one in every five deaths among over-35s in the UK.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, 2.3 million people in the UK have turned to 'vaping' as an alternative to tobacco.

Are e-cigarettes really a safer option for smokers, or are they just trading one harmful habit for another? Will they help you quit smoking? Let's look at the science behind vaping and uncover its pros and cons.

Man smoking an e-cigarette

How does vaping work?

As any smoker will know, the addictive ingredient of cigarettes is nicotine. E-cigarettes work by heating liquid nicotine until it boils and turns into a vapour, which is then inhaled by the user.

That's why it's called vaping - because you're inhaling vapour rather than smoke!

Is vaping safer than smoking?

E-cigarettes have been sold in the UK since 2004. While that seems a long time, in scientific terms it's not enough to fully understand the effects of vaping on long term health. However, scientists have already uncovered plenty of interesting information.

Public Health England suggests that e-cigs are 95% safer than smoking. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, but don't contain harmful substances such as tar or carbon monoxide. Using them doesn’t involve burning anything, which spares users from inhaling any harmful carcinogens.

The levels of dangerous chemicals in e-cigs are a fraction of those found in cigarettes, sometimes as low as 1/1000. A level this low wouldn't pose a serious health risk.

The danger of passive smoking is also thought to be much lower, as the smoke cloud produced by e-cigs doesn’t hang around as long as cigarettes, or contain as many dangerous substances.

Hand crushing cigarettes

It's important to note that while e-cigs are safer than cigarettes, they aren't safer than nothing. The fact that vaping is only 95% safer than smoking should shows there's still some risk to be found, so if you don't smoke at all, you shouldn't take up vaping.

We should also address the reports of e-cigs 'exploding', which tend to appear in the news every now and then. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) suggests this can be avoided by buying products from a recognised manufacturer and following the instructions provided when charging your device.

Let's face it, they're much less likely to cause a fire than a real cigarette, which of course is already on fire!

What are the side effects of e-cigarettes?

The evidence of side effects with vaping is largely anecdotal, as there have been very few studies. Naturally, there's some crossover between symptoms caused by vaping and symptoms caused by giving up cigarettes. In many cases, your side effects will depend on how long you were smoking previously.

It's important to stay hydrated if you're vaping regularly, as the smoke draws moisture away from its environment. This might explain why some people occasionally get headaches, dizzy spells and a dry mouth after an e-cigarette. Some people also develop a slight cough.

Can e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?

Yes. The Royal College of General Practitioners approves their use as a way to stop smoking. Data from UK health authorities shows that in 2014/15, two thirds of people who combined e-cigs with face-to-face help succeeded in quitting smoking.

If you're looking for support in your effort to quit smoking, our doctors are here to help. They'll be there for you throughout your journey and offer helpful advice when the going gets tough. You can also find further inspiration from our 48 ways to quit smoking.

See a doctor about quitting smoking

This post was updated in April 2017.

Topics: Quit Smoking