Researchers at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have found people who use e-cigarettes have significantly altered immune responses to flu viruses.

E-cigarettes have boomed in popularity across the U.S. in the past decade, even as use of traditional cigarettes declined. The rise has been especially large with young users.

Because of that, researchers have focused more attention on the potential health risks of e-cigarettes. This is especially true with a respiratory-related pandemic raging across the global.

“There’s been a lot of questions in the field as to whether e-cigarette and cigarette use is beneficial or damaging or problematic in terms of COVID, and we really haven’t had a good answer,” Meghan Rebuli, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Pediatrics, said.

But when compared to nonusers, people who vaped e-cigarettes showed more changes in the immune genes in their respiratory cells that fight off viruses. They also showed a suppressed level of antibodies.

In many of the study’s participants, this change was even more pronounced among e-cig users than in smokers.

While the study focused on a flu model, findings suggest e-cig users are likely more susceptible to respiratory viruses such as COVID-19 than nonsmokers, Rebuli said.

UNC’s study compared nonsmokers, cigarette smokers and e-cigarette users between the ages of 18 and 40. The researchers inoculated participants with a live attenuated influenza virus, a modeled flu infection that allows researchers to safely examine immune responses in subjects.

After comparing the nasal fluid and other biomarkers of the patients, the researchers did not find the viral load (the amount of the virus in a person) to differ among the three groups studied.

They did, however, find a decreased expression of immune genes critical for defense against a virus as well as the genes that help train the body to prevent reinfection.

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