Electronic Cigarette Liquid Constituents Induce Nasal and Tracheal Sensory Irritation in Mice in Regionally Dependent Fashion

Nicotine Tob Res. 2020 Dec 15;22(Suppl 1):S35-S44. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntaa174.


Introduction: Electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) are currently used by millions of adults and adolescents worldwide. Major respiratory symptoms, such as coughing reported by e-cig users, including patients with e-cig, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI), indicate e-cig constituent-induced sensory irritation. However, e-cig constituent-induced nociceptive activity in nasal and tracheal respiratory epithelia (RE) and neuronal activation in the trigeminal ganglia and brainstem nuclei, which receive airway chemosensory inputs have not been examined and compared. Comparisons of physiological responses between freebase nicotine and nicotine salts are also missing.

Aims and methods: Event-related potential (ERP) was recorded electrophysiologically to assess mouse nasal and tracheal RE chemosensory responses to various flavorings, nicotine, including freebase and nicotine salts, e-liquid mixtures, and tussigenic stimuli. Also, mice were subjected to inhalation exposure to aerosol of a vanilla-flavored e-liquid or air (control), and the activated-trigeminal nociceptive neurons and brainstem neurons were examined using immunohistochemistry.

Results: Individual constituents and mixtures of e-liquids, capsaicin, and citric and acetic acids evoked significantly larger ERP in the nose than in the trachea with the exception of menthol. ERP responses to freebase nicotine were significantly larger than protonated nicotine. Four nicotine salts (benzoate, lactate, levulinate, and salicylate) induced similar responses. Compared with air-exposed mice, e-liquid aerosol-exposed mice showed a significant increase in numbers of activated trigeminal nociceptive neurons and brainstem neurons in the spinal trigeminal nucleus, paratrigeminal nucleus, and nucleus tractus solitarius.

Conclusions: E-liquid constituents region-dependently stimulate airway nociceptive chemosensory systems, and freebase nicotine is more potent than protonated nicotine.

Implications: Neural abnormalities have been implicated in the development of nasal and respiratory illnesses. The higher sensitivity of the nasal nociceptive chemosensory system to nicotine and flavorings may indicate a health risk for e-liquid aerosol-induced upper airway illnesses via neurogenic alteration and warrants further investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Flavoring Agents / pharmacology*
  • Irritants / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Nasal Mucosa / drug effects*
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Sensory Thresholds / drug effects*
  • Trachea / drug effects*


  • Flavoring Agents
  • Irritants
  • Nicotine