As vaping illnesses rise, doctors warn of possible ‘irreversible damage’ to lungs

Patients hospitalized with vaping-related illness often have severe pneumonia, and this kind of inflammation can create long-term damage, doctors say. (alvarez/Getty Images)
Nationwide, people who vape continue to sicken with severe and unexplained lung illness, leaving doctors and patients concerned about both the acute and long-term effects of the injuries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that there are now 530 confirmed or probable cases of lung injury associated with vaping, a jump from 380 cases reported last week. Seven people have died.

“We at CDC are very concerned about the occurrence of life-threatening illness in otherwise healthy, young people,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, during a call with reporters.

She said this is an ongoing outbreak: “States continue to get new cases reported.”

The CDC has ramped up its investigation, activating its Emergency Operations Center this week in an effort to nail down the cause of the illnesses, which remains unclear. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has enlisted the help of its office of criminal investigations, the law enforcement arm of FDA.

“We are in desperate need of facts,” the FDA’s Mitch Zeller said during a call with reporters Thursday.

So far, it appears that most patients have fallen ill after vaping THC — a psychoactive component in cannabis — nicotine or a combination of both. Symptoms include severe pneumonia, in many cases. Patients can recover from the acute problem that led them to the hospital, but long-term impacts are unknown.

One patient, Adam Hergenreder, 18, of Gurnee, Ill., who was hospitalized with a severe vaping-related respiratory sickness in August, said his doctor told him that he has the “lungs of a 70-year-old.”

It’s “terrifying to think about,” Hergenreder told NPR. He was vaping THC but says he did not know it could be dangerous. He says he’s feeling better since his hospitalization, but he still gets winded going up stairs.

In the hospital, he says, “they caught an image of the bottom portion of my lungs, and that’s when they realized the severity of the damage.”

His story has garnered a lot of media attention, in part because he’s part of a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the vape products he used.

His case raises an important question: Can the patients who’ve fallen seriously ill after vaping expect to make a full recovery? We spoke to doctors who have treated some of the patients.

WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., has treated seven patients who became ill after vaping. “All of the patients we’ve seen here have improved,” says Daniel Fox, a pulmonologist and critical care expert at WakeMed. “All have been able to leave the hospital,” he says.

Many of the patients were diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, which means that “oils or fats have entered the lung that should not be there,” Fox explains.