"Vaping is such a big assault on the oral environment, and the change happens dramatically and over a short period of time," said study senior author Dr Purnima Kumar, a professor of periodontology at Ohio State University.
She and her team collected plaque samples from under the gums of 123 young and healthy people who had no current signs of oral disease: 25 smokers, 25 nonsmokers, 20 e-cigarette users, 25 former smokers using e-cigarettes and 28 people who smoked cigarettes and vaped.
The samples from the daily e-cigarette users had high levels of infection-causing bacteria that put them at high risk for a range of oral health problems.
Dangerous combination of bacteria
The bacteria populations in vapers' mouths resembled those of people with periodontitis, a gum infection that can lead to tooth loss and, if untreated, is a risk factor for heart and lung disease, according to the researchers.
The bacterial threat to oral health in vapers was seen whether they used nicotine or nicotine-free products.
That suggests that the heated and pressurised liquids in e-cigarette cartridges may transform vapers' mouths into an ideal location for a dangerous combination of bacteria, the researchers said.
Even longtime current and former cigarette smokers in the study, whose smoking would have encouraged disease-causing oral bacteria, had high-risk oral bacteria populations associated with vaping after only three to 12 months of e-cigarette use.
The findings challenge claims that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes, Kumar noted.
"If you stop smoking and start vaping instead, you don't move back toward a healthy bacterial profile but shift up to the vaping profile," Kumar said in a university news release. "Knowing the vaping profile is pathogen-rich, you're not doing yourself any favours by using vaping to quit smoking."
The study was published on 27 May in the journal Science Advances.
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