Vaping and hearing loss: Is there a link?
Studies have shown smoking cigarettes can damage your hearing, but what about vaping?
There's no conclusive research yet, but it appears that vaping indeed carries similar risks to smoking. And depending on the chemicals found in the vape juice flavoring, it may even be more harmful.
Here's what we do know:
Little government oversight of vaping chemicals
E-cigarettes, vaping pens and mod boxes are devices that allow users to inhale a vapor containing varying levels of nicotine, along with other substances. They are battery operated and use a heating element to heat up a substance called e juice or vape juice, which is contained in a cartridge. The vapor is then released and inhaled by the user. There are more than 500 brands and thousands of vape juice flavors currently on the market, yet there is little FDA regulation, oversight or safety checks determining what exactly is in them.
In 2019, it appeared if the FDA would initiate policies, but that effort is now stalled.
Because of this lack of oversight or regulation, at this point it is impossible for healthcare professionals or consumers to know precisely how vaping affects your health, including your hearing health.
Nicotine restricts blood flow
Nicotine, a substance also found in regular cigarettes, carries unique health risks. Nicotine is an addictive substance that tightens your blood vessels, including the ones in your ears. This restricts the blood flow oxygen to the inner ear, which leads to damage in the tiny hair cells in the cochlea that translate sound vibrations into electrical impulses for the brain.
Although some e-cigarette cartridges contain no nicotine, others contain nicotine in varying amounts, from a little to a lot.
"When you're exposed to nicotine from these products you can experience both the short-term and long-term harms of nicotine use," said Dr. Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, at a 2019 media briefing on vaping. Her research is focused on understanding substance-use behaviors in adult and adolescent substance users. "The nicotine in the newer Juul products are much higher than older products. It's very possible you're exposed to much higher levels of nicotine."
A study done in 2014 found there was often a significant difference in the amount of nicotine present in the cartridge and what was presented on the label.
Hidden dangers in vape juice
But you can always choose a zero-nicotine option, which should be trouble free, right? Not necessarily.
Even if you go with the zero-nicotine option, the vape juice bears examination. It's what gives the e-cigarette its “flavor,” and contains at the very least a mixture of flavorings, colorings, other unknown chemicals—and often a substance called propylene glycol.
Propylene glycol is an alcohol-based solvent that, while not having yet been studied in terms of its use in e-cigarettes, has been studied in relation to products such as ear drops. Research has proven that when used topically, propylene glycol is ototoxic (i.e. harmful to the inner ear).
"One of the big concerns we have: What are people using these e-cigarettes and and products being exposed to when they try these products?" Krishnan-Sarin pointed out. "We learn everyday about new things that are being put into these products."
The risk to teens and young adults
Unfortunately vape juice, with enticing flavors like Gummy Bear and Sweet Tart, is also what makes e-cigarettes appealing for young people.
And young people are taking up the e-cigarette habit at an alarming rate.
"America’s teens report a dramatic increase in their use of vaping devices in just a single year, with 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting “any vaping” in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017," according to this 2018 report on vaping from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
And since studies have shown mechanisms within the hearing nerve are not fully developed until late adolescence, the hearing nerve pathways of teens are particularly vulnerable to any toxins such as nicotine.
Why are so many teens turning to vaping? In addition to slick marketing campaigns targeting the younger generation, the internet makes it all too easy for teens to access e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are not legally allowed to be sold to anyone under the age of 18, yet anyone can go online and purchase e-cigarette products or equipment simply by checking a box claiming they are 18.
Get immediate help if you experience sudden hearing loss
Some claim that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to cigarettes, and can even help individuals stop smoking. The jury is still out on that as well. If you do vape, and experience symptoms such as blockage, ear pressure, sudden hearing loss or tinnitus, stop vaping immediately and consult an ENT or hearing healthcare professional.