Here’s What You Need to Know about the Vaping Crisis

As the CDC and FDA continue to investigate a multi-state outbreak of severe lung disease associated with e-cigarettes, here's what you need to know.

vaping crisis

Photo via Getty Images/6okean

Updated at 2:50 p.m. on September 11. 

As of September 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 450 possible cases of severe lung disease associated with e-cigarette use have been reported.

Five deaths have been confirmed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Oregon. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are currently in an ongoing investigation to identify a more definitive cause. Although all cases have a a history of using e-cigarette products, the exact cause of these illnesses are still unknown.

E-cigarettes, or “vapes”, “e-cigs”, “vape pens”, etc. are battery-powered devices, usually containing nicotine or marijunana, that heat the substance and delivers an aerosol to be inhaled by the user. Marketed as a safe way for cigarette users to cut back on tobacco, certain companies have been at the forefront of backlash from health officials and the media about their negative health effects—especially for youth and young adults.

On Friday, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) released a preliminary report detailing pulmonary illness related to e-cigarette use in Illinois and Wisconsin among 53 case patients. The authors of the paper write that “E-cigarette use is not harmless; it can expose users to substances known to have adverse health effects, including ultra-fine particles, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful ingredients.”

Which is alarming given that in just one year the use of e-cigarettes among U.S. high school students has increased from 12 percent to 21 percent, according to the NEJM. And as Boston reported last week, the second-hand exposure of these products isn’t any better for young people than second-hand smoke from cigarettes.

While this investigation is underway here’s what you need to know to keep you and your loved ones safe:

Who is at risk? Anyone who uses, or has used, e-cigarettes or vaping devices.  

What are the symptoms? Patients have reported cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, or weight loss. According to the CDC, some patients reported symptoms developing only over a few days and others developed over several weeks.

When should I see a doctor? Promptly. If you experience any of the above symptoms seek medical care, or you can also call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. The CDC is encouraging local and state health departments to notify the CDC of possible cases as soon as possible.

The Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner, on September 11, issued a mandate for all cases of unexplained e-cigarette or vaping-associated pulmonary disease to be immediately reported to the Department of Public Health    

How should I prevent the illness? If you currently use e-cigarettes or vapes, consider not using them for the time being. Regardless, the CDC is reiterating that youth and young adults, as well as pregnant women, should never use these devices. Adults who do not currently use tobacco products should not begin using e-cigarettes. And for those who do use them, you should not buy illicit products or modify them in any way.

Are marijuana vapes just as bad? The FDA is warning that vaping devices containing THC (the psychoactive component of the marijuana plant) may be even more harmful than e-cigarettes. Many of the tested samples of vaping fluid used by sick patients included THC. These samples contained significant amounts of Vitamin E acetate, which is a substance present in topical consumer products or dietary supplements, but the information about its effects after inhalation are unknown.

What’s the bottom line? As the investigations are ongoing, there is much about the cause of these diseases that is not known. The CDC claims no evidence of infectious disease has been identified, so it is due to a chemical exposure, and updates on specific substances of e-cigarette products will be given when more information is available.

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