FDA links vaping to 127 seizures — expert says e-cigarettes can 'alter' teens' brains

A new report from the FDA has linked seizures to e-cigarette use. Here's why experts are warning against the dangerous growing trend. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new report from the FDA has linked seizures to e-cigarette use. Here's why experts are warning against the dangerous growing trend. (Photo: Getty Images)

When it comes to vaping e-cigarettes, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

Long promoted as a “safer alternative” to smoking by the companies that make them, e-cigs are being outed in new reports of their damaging health effects — something that’s especially worrisome, considering that one in 10 eighth graders have now reportedly tried them.

The most recent report comes from the Food and Drug Administration, which has received “127 reports of seizure[s] or other neurological symptoms” from 2010 to 2019 that are believed to be linked to vaping. The news is part of an ongoing investigation the agency has been conducting since April, one that has reportedly tied a troubling number of the neurological effects to teen use.

Nicholas Chadi, MD, currently a pediatrician specializing in adolescent and addiction medicine at the University of Montréal, spent years at the Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children's Hospital. He says the reports of seizures related to vaping are — at least to doctors — not shocking.

“The way young people are using e-cigs now, with very high doses of nicotine, can definitely induce something like a seizure, especially for people who are predisposed,” Chadi tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I’m not at all surprised to hear those numbers, but they're of course very worrisome.”

Chadi says that the seizures are likely part of a cluster of symptoms that result from “nicotine toxicity” — a new condition that’s the equivalent of a nicotine overdose. “I’ve had teens go through it dozens of times,” says Chadi. “They feel very sick with nausea and migraines and then they start throwing up. They get strong abdominal pain, like a punch in the gut, and it lasts for hours.”

After the acute reaction passes, Chadi says there is a period of feeling “limp, tired and unwell.” He says the “intense” experience is so common among the teens he’s treated that they refer to this “well-known pattern” as being “nic-sick.” He argues that the condition is inextricably linked to the creation of certain ultra-powerful e-cigarettes like Juul, which contain exorbitantly high levels of nicotine (the CDC says that one Juul pod is the equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes).

A new report from the Food and Drug Administration is sharing 127 cases of "seizures and other neurological symptoms" related to vaping. An expert weighs in on the potential long term health effects.
A new report from the Food and Drug Administration is sharing 127 cases of "seizures and other neurological symptoms" related to vaping. (Photo: Getty Images)

“It's hard to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in 15 minutes,” Chadi tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But you can do that with a Juul pod, and it's going to be done and gone in 15 mins. The way teens are using it has created this very new phenomenon.”

And while the seizures are a newly reported health effect, they’re far from the only one.

Just weeks ago, eight teens in Wisconsin were reportedly hospitalized for “severe lung damage” tied to use of e-cigarettes. Linda Richter, Ph.D., director of policy research and analysis at the Center on Addiction, says that — beyond seizures — e-cigarettes can be extremely harmful.

“Nicotine and other chemicals in most vaping products have a number of dangerous health effects, including harm to the cardiovascular, respiratory and reproductive symptoms, potential links to cancer, and cognitive and mental health effects,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Some of these effects can be seen in the short-term while others take longer to manifest.”

The FDA, which seems increasingly worried about incidents like these, is encouraging doctors and teens to report negative effects immediately.

“It is imperative that health care professionals, consumers, parents, teachers and other concerned adults, as well as youth and young adult users, report detailed information about any past or future incidents of seizures following e-cigarette use to the FDA,” reads a statement released Wednesday. “We’re committed to monitoring this issue closely and taking additional steps as necessary to protect the public, especially our nation’s youth, from the dangers of e-cigarettes...”

Chadi, like other experts, views stories like these as a wakeup call. “Things like this are a good warning sign,” he says. “A lot of parents still think e-cigs are harmless. I see a lot of parents buying them for their kids and thinking they’re good. I think the messaging has to be that these are harmful, they don't lead to smoking cessation, and they can lead to adverse health effects.”

Perhaps most important for parents to note is that on top of short-term effects like vomiting and migraines, Chadi says seizures could be signaling that nicotine toxicity causes longterm effects. “We're still in an area where the research on e-cigs is starting, but we do know that using e-cigarettes in teen years can alter your brain,” he says. “Longterm, it will decrease your ability to memorize and learn… I would suspect someone coming in with seizures would have longterm effects.”

Juul sent the following statement to Yahoo Lifestyle: "We have robust safety monitoring systems in place and will vigilantly monitor for any evidence of safety issues and work cooperatively with FDA as we continue to combat youth usage and eliminate cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world.”

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