What Parents Need to Know About the Vaping Illness

Photo: John Keeble (Getty Images)

You’ve likely always suspected that vaping wasn’t the healthiest habit for anyone, let alone teenagers, to pick up. And now it seems we are collecting proof of that, as hundreds of people across the country are contracting a severe lung illness linked to vaping—and many of them are teens or young people in their early 20s.

Vaping—also known as JUULing, after the popular name brand—is the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol or “vapor” through an e-cigarette device. The aerosol typically contains nicotine or THC (cannabis), as well as what the New England Journal of Medicine describes as “ultra-fine particles, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful ingredients.”

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Vaping can be particularly enticing for teenagers because the liquid comes in a variety of sweet or fruity flavors: mango, mint chocolate, custard, cinnamon roll, and strawberries and cream, to name a few. Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among youths in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. And last year, high school students reported using them at a much higher rate than adults (20.8% compared to 3.2%).

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That may explain why many of the patients who are being diagnosed with severe lung illness linked to vaping are young and otherwise healthy, with no detectable bacterial or viral infection, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

One by one, doctors rule out infections, viruses, autoimmune diseases, and all likely causes of such symptoms. They’re left with just one compelling culprit: vaping.

“The patients I’ve seen have been healthy, young. All have been males, and otherwise no real medical problems,” said Gautam George, an assistant professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “We don’t completely understand what it is about vaping that causes this constellation of symptoms.”

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What we know (and don’t know)

Early symptoms of the illness include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. It may look like a fast-developing pneumonia and may require artificial respiration.

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The CDC and FDA are still investigating and analyzing samples provided by patients to determine a specific link between all patients being treated for a vaping-related illness. While they have pointed out that vitamin E acetate from the cannabis samples is specifically under investigation because nearly all contained the chemical, not all patients have reported using a cannabis product.

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And because vaping is still a relatively new trend, any other short- or long-term health effects of vaping are still largely unknown.

What you can do

Like with any other risky behavior, it’s important to create an on-going dialogue with your teens about vaping. Even if you don’t suspect they’ve tried it, they very likely have friends who vape. The American Lung Association has created a site called The Vape Talk with an assortment of helpful resources for parents, including:

The New Jersey Department of Health has also put together a helpful guide for teens and parents with information about vaping and a phone number teens can text for help quitting.

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And finally, use the news. Share the stories—like this one that was reported in my local paper a few days ago—about young people who are being hospitalized with a vaping-related illness. Teenagers often think they’re invincible, and it doesn’t hurt to remind them that they’re not.


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