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Nearly 100 people hospitalized with severe lung issues after vaping

Health experts are investigating clusters of vaping-related lung issues. Here's what you need to know to breathe easier.

Young woman vaping

At least 24 people have been hospitalized with vaping-related respiratory issues since July -- many of them young adults. 

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Health concerns over vaping intensify after state and federal health officials report that 94 people -- many of them young adults -- across 14 states have been hospitalized with suspected vaping-related respiratory issues. Most of the patients admitted to a hospital have reported similar symptoms, including coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue that worsened over time. Some patients also reportedly experienced fever, chest pain, nausea and diarrhea. (The FDA is also investigating 120-plus reports of seizures after vaping.)

In Minnesota, some of these individuals had to be hospitalized for multiple weeks, including stints in the intensive care unit. An 18-year-old man in Florida suffered a collapsed lung after vaping. One Wisconsin man in his 20s even had to be placed in a medically induced coma. It's unclear at this time whether all patients will fully recover.

In a statement issued over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that officials are working with the departments of health in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin to investigate these "severe" pulmonary illnesses. 

Additional states have notified the CDC of more possible cases and investigations are ongoing. According to the CDC, says "there is no conclusive evidence that an infectious disease is causing the illnesses."

Read more: Why vaping is so addictive, according to doctors

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Should you be worried?

It's hard to say. Patients have reported vaping products that contain a variety of substances, including nicotine and THC, as well as using do-it-yourself "home brews," finds the Washington Post. At this time, health officials are unsure whether the lung issues stem from the e-cigarette devices or one or more ingredients commonly found in vape juice. "While some cases in each of the states are similar and appear to be linked to e-cigarette product use, more information is needed to determine what is causing the illnesses," says the CDC. 

vape pen shown with cannabis

At least one Wisconsin man who was hospitalized had purchased tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil on the street, according to news reports.

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The American Vaping Association is skeptical that traditional vape products are at fault. "With approximately 10 million adults vaping nicotine each month without major issue, it appears much more likely that the products causing lung damage contain THC or illegal drugs, not nicotine," an AVA spokesperson told CBS News.

But health experts like Anne Griffiths, MD, a pediatric lung specialist who saw all four of the reported cases in Minnesota, aren't so sure. "My sense is this isn't new," she told the Associated Press. "It's new that we're recognizing it. I really do think the primary cause of these illnesses is what's been inhaled."

Currently, no one device or cartridge is associated with the reported cases of lung disease. When estimating the scope of the problem, health officials are only counting certain lung illnesses in which the person reports having vaped within three months. 

Most of the illnesses under investigation involve teens and young adults, a population in which e-cigarette use has skyrocketed: 78% among high school students and 49% among middle school students between 2017 and 2018, according to the CDC. As of 2018, more than 3.6 million U.S. youth, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students, report using e-cigarettes. 

The suspected link to vaping is more bad news for an industry that's already under fire for targeting teens. In an email to Reuters, industry-leader Juul Labs said, "Like any health-related events reportedly associated with the use of vapor products, we are monitoring these reports." 

As the investigation progresses, the CDC is asking clinicians to report possible cases of unexplained vaping-related pulmonary illness to their state or local health department. And in a statement last week, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm strongly urged "people to avoid vaping products and e-cigarettes. Anyone -- especially young people who have recently vaped -- experiencing unexplained breathing problems should see a doctor."

Read more: Why vaping could give you cavities

What we know about vaping and respiratory health

E-cigarettes have only been available in the US for a little over a decade and, during that time, have gone largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. As a result, there's a huge amount of variability in the market. Together, these two things make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the respiratory effects of vaping. 

That said, here's what we know so far: E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than tobacco cigarettes and are considered safer in many respects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But vaping is not without respiratory risks -- especially in people who have no prior history of smoking.  

When the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine analyzed all the available research on the public health consequences of e-cigarettes -- more than 800 peer-reviewed studies -- it concluded that, "studies examining the long-term effects of e-cigarettes on the development of chronic respiratory symptoms are completely lacking due to the newness of the product." 

illustration of smoke-filled lungs

The jury is still out on whether vaping causes lung disease, but early research points to potential other problems.

Canva

However, it did find "conclusive evidence that in addition to nicotine, most e-cigarette products contain and emit numerous potentially toxic substances" like acetaldehyde, acrolein, diacetyl and formaldehyde, which have all been linked to lung disease. And that exposing lungs to these substances could potentially damage the respiratory system or worsen pre-existing lung disease. 

Although NASEM was unable to identify any research on whether or not vaping causes respiratory diseases, it did find moderate evidence of a link between vaping and increased coughing and wheezing in teens, as well as an increase in asthma exacerbations.

Bottom line: There are still a lot of unknowns, but preliminary research -- and the lack of federal oversight -- has health organizations like the American Lung Association concerned. 

"The e-cigarettes currently in the US marketplace have not been systemically reviewed by the FDA to determine their impact on lung health," the ALA says. "While much remains to be determined about the lasting health consequences of these products, the ALA is very troubled by the evolving evidence about the impact of e-cigarettes on the lungs."

Read more: How to quit Juuling, according to addiction experts


The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.