The Dauphin County teen and high school soccer player began “vaping” e-cigarettes two years ago. This summer he began vaping marijuana-derived THC liquid bought on the street.
Two weeks ago it became painful to breathe. He quickly grew sicker, developing nausea, severe headache and fever. “I was taking half breaths, quarter breaths, because it was so painful to take a deep breath,” says the teen, who didn’t want his name published for fear of affecting his sports eligibility.
He wound up in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of more than 800 people across the United States stricken with a mysterious illness related to vaping. Twelve have died. Pennsylvania has five confirmed cases, three probable cases and another 50 possible cases, but no deaths.
Doctors still don’t know the exact cause or, worse, the long-term medical consequences.
“It’s almost like it’s chemical exposure injuries,” says Dr. Brian Jenssen of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has seen several cases. “We don’t know everything, but what’s already there is really concerning.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the victims had recent history of vaping. The CDC further believes most had vaped marijuana-derived oils purchased on the street.
The Harrisburg-area teen says he bought THC cartridges on the street. They cost about $40. He screwed them onto a battery-powered device a friend who is of legal age bought for him at a vape store.
He vaped THC oil every day, going through a cartridge per week. Among his circle, the THC cartridges “are very, very common … many people are using them,” he said. That includes other athletes, he said.
He also vaped regular e-cigarettes containing nicotine, although he blames his sickness on the THC cartridges. Until two weeks ago, he says, he felt no negative effect on his lungs or athletic conditioning.
At first, his doctor attributed the lung pain to exercise-induced asthma. It grew “exponentially worse,” so he went to the hospital, where he was told he had pneumonia and given antibiotics. He was soon back at the hospital, with doctors becoming alarmed over test results showing possible liver problems and sending him to the Philadelphia hospital, where he spent two nights and was treated with steroids.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten the steroids I believe I would be dead,” he said.
He said doctors expect him to make a “full recovery” and have cleared him to resume sports.
The CDC says the illness isn’t the result of an infection and “the suspected cause is a chemical exposure.”
Symptoms have included coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, diarrhea, fever, fatigue and abdominal pain. In some cases the symptoms came on over a few days and in others developed over weeks.
The CDC says about 70% of the victims are male, almost two-thirds are between 18 and 34, and 16% are younger than 18.
CHOP’s Jenssen says some people who got sick first went to a family doctor and were immediately sent to the emergency room. He says the severity of their illnesses “runs a gamut” from people quickly released from the hospital to people needing intensive care to those who died.
He says CHOP and its related health system have treated several children and adults. Moreover, CHOP’s poison control center has been notified of about 40 possible cases in southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, he says.
“The feeling in the community is everything is underreported,” Jenssen says of the illnesses. While the illnesses only recently came onto the radar of the CDC, he believes it’s likely some earlier cases were attributed to causes such as asthma.
Jenssen is a pediatrician and also a researcher focused on nicotine addiction among young people. He’s alarmed by a lack of knowledge about the cause of the vaping-related illnesses, and about the long-term consequences of vaping and vaping products, which are largely unregulated and unstudied. Just as it took decades to fully understand the connection between cigarettes and cancer, he expects it will take years for all the possible harms of vaping to be known.
As it stands, health officials are warning people who use e-cigarettes not to buy them off the street or use them with products bought off the street such as THC or CBD oils. They also are urging people who used e-cigarettes not to return to smoking, but to stay on the lookout for symptoms, and to seek medical care if symptoms arise. The CDC says children, young adults and pregnant women should not use any form of e-cigarette.
The illnesses have put a sharp focus on the legal e-cigarette industry, which was already drawing criticism for marketing to children and using flavors to appeal to young people. On Sept. 11, the Trump administration said it will ban non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes, including the flavors of menthol and mint.
The Trump administration says 27.5% of U.S. high school students are using e-cigarettes, and “the tremendous progress we’ve made in reducing youth tobacco use in the U.S. is jeopardized by this onslaught of e-cigarette use.”
“We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
On one level, e-cigarettes are considered safer than regular cigarettes in that they don’t involve the many cancer causing chemicals produced by burning tobacco. Still, they can deliver powerful doses of highly-addictive nicotine. There’s mounting concern e-cigarettes are leading to increased use of regular cigarettes.
CHOP’s Jenssen says e-cigarettes have proven to be a wide and inviting gateway to nicotine addiction for young people, at a time of limited knowledge about how to help young people kick addiction to vaping. “Prevention is going to be our most effective treatment option,” he says.
The Dauphin County teen says he hasn’t vaped or used any form of nicotine since he got sick. Nor does he miss it.
“I have no desire to smoke anything ever again,” he says.