Although vaping dates back decades, it’s only recently that it’s been heavily promoted as a safer alternative to smoking — both cigarettes and marijuana. But much to the dismay of the companies producing them, increasing reports of negative health effects are poking holes in the theory that vaping is harmless.
The most recent incident to gain national attention was last week’s hospitalization of eight Wisconsin teenagers who, doctors found, had “seriously damaged lungs” connected to their use of vape pens (the exact kind of which remains unclear).
The demographic of those affected is, unfortunately, fitting. In recent years, teen use of e-cigarettes has soared. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the number of high schoolers who used e-cigarettes skyrocketed between 2011 and 2018 (from 220,000 users to more than 3 million). As of 2018, one in five high school kids now reportedly uses e-cigarettes.
Michael Gutzeit, MD, chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital Wisconsin, held a
press conference on Thursday about the eight patients his facility treated. He said the teens came in with a “variety of illnesses” — some of which required “significant therapy” in order for them to breathe. “We don’t understand all the implications of that right now,” Gutzeit said. “But they all have had fairly severe lung damage.”
According to Fox6 News, the teenagers complained of symptoms such as “shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, cough, and weight loss,” as well as vomiting and diarrhea. As of now, only one remains in the hospital. (Officials in Wisconsin did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.)
While Gutzeit said it’s too soon to know whether the cases are linked to the same type of vape pen, he suggested there’s something bigger to be gleaned from the cluster of cases. “Vaping in teenagers is causing significant damage,” Gutzeit told to the crowd of reporters. “We want that message to be loud and clear.”
Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., deputy director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been trying to send that message for years. As one of the leading researchers on the health effects of vaping in the nation, she says it’s clear the product, and practice, is more dangerous than it seems.
“The evidence is highly suggestive that, especially in teens, e-cigarette use is not without health effects,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Jaspers studies how vaping — specifically e-cigarettes — affects major organs, and has seen a particularly troubling number of complications in the lungs, including acute lung (or respiratory) distress, pneumonia, acute lung injury, and a series of symptoms in which patients describe the feeling of fluid in their lungs, which is newly being called “wet lung.”
Jaspers says the cases in Wisconsin are troubling, and a sign of a larger problem. “Something is not right here,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “These were otherwise healthy kids. Why did they end up in the hospital?”
Some of Jaspers research has shown potentially longterm consequences, as well. In one regularly cited study, she found a specific cinnamon flavor of e-cigarettes to actually “impair lung function.” As a result, she fears we’re likely to see an increase in cases like these. “I hate to say that, but I think so, unfortunately,” she says. “I think we’re going to be seeing... people putting the pieces together.”
Her hope is that more doctors start speaking out about the cases they are seeing — both for researchers to collect population-based data, and for teens to gain awareness that vaping is not what it seems. “We need to get the message out there... we really need to try and stop this from going any further,” Jaspers tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The products are still out there.”
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