Teen suffers respiratory failure after just three weeks smoking e-cigarettes

Teen gets wet lung from vaping, sent to the ICU. (Photo: Getty Images)

Often promoted as harmless, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have become a “healthy” alternative to cigarettes in recent years. Teens are heavily targeted by e-cig advertisements, and once they begin vaping, 30 percent are likely to transition to smoking real cigarettes in six months, vs. 8 percent of nonusers. An 18-year-old Pennsylvania woman quickly got into the habit of vaping during breaks at her hostessing job at a restaurant. However, a few “harmless” puffs over the course of three weeks landed her in the emergency room.

The medical journal Pediatrics reports on a case study where this Pennsylvania teen’s information is kept anonymous but her condition is analyzed — including her medical history, her intensive care treatment, and why a short stint of vaping had such catastrophic results. The report is one of the few case studies that reveal the potential severe consequences of vaping. 

After only three weeks of vaping, this particular teen developed strong symptoms as her body reacted to her new habit. The symptoms included severe coughing, difficulty breathing, and sudden stabbing pains in the chest with every inhalation and exhalation. As her symptoms worsened, she went to the ER, where she was sent to the intensive care unit, according to the Pediatrics report. In the ICU she was put on a breathing machine and tubes were inserted into both sides of her chest to drain fluid found in her lungs.

The young woman experienced what is commonly known as respiratory failure. Dr. Daniel Weiner, one of the patient’s doctors and a co-author of the new report, told CNN, “She was unable to get enough oxygen into her blood from her lungs and required a mechanical ventilator (respirator) to breathe for her until her lungs recovered.”

The teen’s condition worsened as the doctors tried to figure out how a healthy 18-year-old with no medical history (except minor asthma as a child) could be in such critical condition.

After several tests, she was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, often called wet lung, which occurs as an allergic reaction to chemicals or dust. The condition inflames the lungs, making it nearly impossible to breathe. 

Dr. Casey Sommerfeld, the patient’s pediatrician and lead author of the case study, said the chemicals in the e-cigarettes led to lung damage and inflammation, which triggered the woman’s body to mount an immune response that ultimately resulted in her critical condition.

The doctors surmised that it is likely the teen is allergic to one of the chemicals in the e-juice, the liquid added to e-cigarettes and used to produce the vapor. There are many chemicals in e-juice, which contains flavorings, propylene glycol, glycerin, and sometimes nicotine.

“This immune response can lead to increased inflammation and ‘leaky’ blood vessels, which can lead to fluid accumulation in the lungs,” Sommerfeld told CNN. After being given antibiotics, the teen was released from the hospital five days later.

Sommerfeld said that as the popularity of e-cigarettes continues to rise, more and more case studies will continue to reflect the harmful side effects of this habit. And although the teen was the first person diagnosed with wet lung because of e-cigarettes, she will likely not be the last.

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