As It Happens

Stay away from e-cigarettes, doctor warns as vaping-related illness sweeps the U.S.

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are looking at 215 possible cases of a mysterious vaping-related illness across 25 states. 

U.S. investigating more than 200 cases of mysterious illness in young people who vape THC oil or nicotine

an unidentified high school student uses a vaping device in Cambridge, Mass. A wave of vaping-related illness is sweeping the U.S. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
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Transcript

Dr. Dixie Harris has a straightforward warning for people: Don't vape. 

The Utah pulmonologist was the first person in her state to sound the alarm about young people getting extremely sick after vaping. The state's health officials are now reporting 28 cases of severe vaping-related illness. 

And it's not limited to Utah. Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday they are looking at 215 possible cases across 25 states. 

All the cases involve teens or adults who have used e-cigarettes or other vaping devices, either for nicotine or THC, the mind-altering substance in marijuana. Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting.

At least two people with the mysterious illness have died — one in Illinois and one in Oregon

So far, there has been no similar trend of vaping-related illness in Canada. But Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada say they are monitoring the U.S. situation.

Harris, a doctor with Intermountain Healthcare, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the disturbing trend. Here is part of their conversation. 

Dr. Harris, first of all, can you describe what condition these people are in when they come in to see you with this mysterious lung condition?

These patients are usually presenting to the emergency room after being sick for three to six days. Typically they have nausea and vomiting. They feel, overall, terrible. Just achy all over. A lot of back aches and neck aches. High fevers. And that's when these patients present to the emergency room.

When they present, sometimes they're short of breath, sometimes they're coughing, and sometimes they're coughing up blood.

But it sounds a lot like a serious case of the flu, doesn't it?

In fact, most of the time when they're first seen, that's what is thought — that they have the flu.

Typically, it's not really discovered that it's this lung disease related to vaping until they do these chest X-rays, which shows the lung patchy clouds and the shadows, and they realize, oh, there's something more marked going on in the lungs.

A chest X-ray from one of the people suffering from a mysterious vaping-related illness shows whitish, cloud-like areas that are typically seen with unusual pneumonias, fluid in lungs or lung inflammation, says Dr. Dixie Harris. (Intermountain Healthcare)

So how did you make the connection between this mysterious lung condition and the act of vaping?

When we first evaluated the first three or four cases, we really thought that they had some form of infection in the lung, especially [when] we looked at the findings on the chest X-rays and the CAT scans.

We would do procedures, including bronchoscopies, where we collect fluid from deep in the lung and analyze the fluid for any type of bacterial infection, viral infection or even fungal infection.

And when all evaluations turned up negative, we also then asked the patients: Have you had any exposures?

Almost all our patients have had a combination of vaping THC oil and some form of e-cigarette. Not all cases have done both. 

E-juice, used in e-cigarette vaporizers, on display in a California smoke shop. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Why do you think that vaping is causing this?

It's still a mystery to all of us. And I will tell you in Utah, we probably have 40 to 50 people doing the investigation, including experts in toxicology, experts in infectious diseases, experts in epidemiology. And we still don't have an idea of exactly what the cause is.

None of the cases that I've encountered have been exposed to medical marijuana. ... This is THC oil bought out of state at different dispensaries because recreational marijuana is legal in several of our surrounding states.

The thing that ... all the lung doctors are concerned with is that people are putting things in a vaporous form, which means it goes deep in the lungs, and we're not exactly sure how it is affecting the lungs.

Dr. Dixie Harris, a Utah pulmonologist, was the first person in her state to sound the alarm about young people getting extremely sick after vaping. (Intermountain Healthcare )

You say a combination of vaping substances, some THC, some e-cigarettes. Anyone who is not using THC oil who has been affected in this way?

Almost all our cases here in Utah have had some vaping of THC oil, but not all of them. And some of this is relying on the patient's self-reports.

These patients, they many times are getting the materials that they're putting in their open-vaping systems from friends. So many times, even the patient is not aware of everything that they're putting into their lungs.

In this country, marijuana is legal. Many parts of the United States, people can get it legally. ... It's very irregular. There's all kinds of different products, different ways of consuming them, different doses. So how can those who are trying to get to the bottom of this do the research given how many variables you must be dealing with?

That's where it becomes very difficult. We are collecting the samples from patients. Many of the patients have given to the investigators what they're using from the devices, so actually the material they're putting in. And we're sending it to the toxicology labs in the country to try to sort it out.

We have been very seriously investigating this for the past few weeks, and we still have more questions than we have answers at this time.

The word is that this is becoming an epidemic, given the numbers of people who have become so seriously sick. Are you warning people? Should we tell people to reconsider vaping? What's your advice at this point?

Until we have this fully evaluated, my advice at this time would be not to vape any item — whether it's THC oil, whether it's essential oils, whether it is e-cigarettes in any kind of nicotine form. I'd recommend no vaping.

Even prior to this, we do have very good evidence that there is some damage to the lungs or some problems with e-cigarettes in and of themselves. Maybe not as much as smoking cigarettes. However, we also don't have any long-term knowledge of what this vaping of all these materials can do to the lungs.

Every doctor I speak with, we just think you shouldn't be putting these products in your lungs.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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