Over the past few years, vaping has been presented as a healthier alternative to smoking. However, doctors are now beginning to diagnose numerous patients with vape pen lung diseases. It seems that vaping is not as healthy as we first thought.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of October 2019, there were 1,080 possible cases of vape pen lung disease. Of these, as many as 18 have resulted in death.
One of the most concerning aspects of vape pen lung disease is that it usually tends to affect young people. The CDC reports that approximately 80% of cases are in patients under 35 years old. And this statistic is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Many vape pen manufacturers specifically target young people with a range of sweet and fruity flavors. This questionable practice has undoubtedly contributed to the recent rise in vaping-related illness.
So, what is vape pen lung disease? And what steps can you take to prevent it? Let’s take a look.
What Is Vape Pen Lung Disease?
Vape pen lung disease is also known as vaping-associated pulmonary injury (VAPI). It is a respiratory condition that is becoming more widespread due to increases in vaping and e-cigarette use.
The condition appears to be a result of inflammation in the bronchioles, the smallest airways inside the lungs.
In healthy people, the bronchioles are hollow tubes that ensure air can pass into the alveoli. The alveoli are tiny sacs where gas exchange takes place. Simply put, they are where oxygen enters the bloodstream, and the waste product, carbon dioxide, is removed.
However, in patients with vape pen lung disease, the bronchioles become damaged and blocked. This means that air is unable to pass into the alveoli, and effective gas exchange is unable to take place. Therefore, the affected individual’s oxygen levels become too low, leading to a variety of symptoms.
Vape Pen Lung Disease Symptoms
The typical symptoms of vape pen lung disease include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Dry cough
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate
- Fever or chills
- Coughing up blood
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
One of the biggest problems regarding these symptoms is that they are similar to those of pneumonia. This fact means that doctors initially misdiagnose many patients, and they receive inappropriate treatment.
Doctors typically treat conditions like pneumonia with antibiotics. However, these drugs are ineffective for VAPI, which requires treatment with corticosteroid medications such as methylprednisolone. Unfortunately, if physicians diagnose and treat the disease too late, it can cause permanent lung damage or even death.
What Causes Vape Pen Lung Disease?
We are still unsure exactly what causes vape pen lung disease. Patients have reported using a variety of different vaping products and brands. Therefore, scientists have not identified one specific chemical as the cause.
A high proportion of VAPI patients have admitted to vaping THC oil or concentrates. However, THC has been inhaled for many years in the form of natural marijuana without serious problems.
Therefore, it seems unlikely that this cannabinoid is the underlying cause of vape pen lung disease. What seems far more probable is that other chemicals in THC vape oils cause the condition.
Vaping and Vitamin E Oil
One of the most likely culprits of VAPI is vitamin E oil, also known as tocopheryl acetate. This oil is used to thicken vape oils and improve their consistency. However, inhaling this chemical could cause fat to build up inside lung cells and prevent proper gas exchange.
Diacetyl and Popcorn Lung
Another possible contender is a chemical called diacetyl. This chemical is used in the food industry to flavor popcorn. For this reason, the condition it causes is sometimes called ‘popcorn lung.’ Diacetyl may be safe to eat, but certainly not to inhale.
Therefore, you may be shocked to learn that a large number of vape oils contain this dangerous compound. It is especially prevalent in sweet, candy-like flavors such as butterscotch or chocolate. However, there are also many more.
The medical name for popcorn lung is bronchiolitis obliterans. It has similar symptoms to those of VAPI, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Dry cough
These symptoms generally occur 2–8 weeks after exposure to toxins. As well as diacetyl, several other chemicals can cause popcorn lung. These include chlorine and ammonia. The condition can damage the lungs to such an extent that a transplant may be the only treatment option.
Other Possible Causes of VAPI
Aside from vitamin E oil and diacetyl, many other chemicals could cause respiratory problems. One of the major issues with THC vape oils is that people often buy them on the street. Doing this may save money, but these products are often realistic counterfeits. They look just like the real thing, but they are untested, unregulated, and the quality is much lower.
Buyers have no idea what chemicals are in their counterfeit vape pens or how much. They could contain a variety of harmful substances ranging from pesticides to formaldehyde.
Furthermore, fake vape pens may have little actual THC content. In theory, this could lead consumers to vape more in an attempt to achieve their desired effects. And of course, the more you vape, the higher the risk of becoming seriously ill.
Vape Pen Lung Disease Research
A 2019 study by Layden et al. for The New England Journal of Medicine highlighted the severity of the problem. It included 53 patients, 83% were male, and their median age was just 19.
The patients displayed a variety of respiratory symptoms, digestive issues, and constitutional problems. Medical imaging showed that they all had infiltrates (pus, blood, or other substances) on both lungs. Of these patients, 94% were hospitalized, 32% required intubation and mechanical ventilation, and one patient died.
All of the patients in this study had used various vape brands and devices. However, 84% of them had used e-cigarettes containing THC. The authors concluded that more effort is needed to determine the precise cause of VAPI.
How to Avoid Vape Pen Lung Disease
One of the easiest ways to avoid vape pen lung disease is simply not to vape. However, if you are using vape pens to help you quit smoking, this may not be a viable option. The same is true if you are vaping THC or CBD to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition.
In these cases, you have several different options. Firstly, only ever buy your vape oils and e-cigs from reputable companies. And always use their official websites rather than buying untested, unregulated products on the street. While it is undoubtedly tempting to save money on unofficial vape pens, it is not worth risking your long-term health.
Secondly, if you live in a legal state, you could try vaping dry herb rather than vape oils. There are many different cannabis strains available in your local dispensary. Some of these have high THC contents, while others are rich in CBD, meaning there is something for everyone. You could also try dabbing with marijuana concentrates for a potent hit, without the risks of vape oil.
Another option is to try other consumption methods such as edibles, tinctures, or topicals. If you are trying to quit tobacco, there is even some evidence that CBD oil could help.
And finally, if you have never vaped before, don’t start! Vape companies have intentionally created appealing flavors and marketed products to make them look cool. But there is nothing cool about ending up in hospital on a respirator, so don’t fall into the trap.
Final Thoughts on Vape Pens and Lung Disease
Doctors have been diagnosing vape pen lung diseases more and more frequently over the past few months. This worrying trend appears to be related to THC-containing vape oils, many of which come from unlicensed sellers.
These products may be fakes, and although they look genuine, they could contain a whole host of dangerous toxins. Therefore, if you must vape, only buy from reputable sources and do your research beforehand. Otherwise, try alternative products such as pure marijuana or cannabis concentrates.
Lastly, if you experience any of the symptoms of vape pen lung disease, visit your physician right away. Tell them which products you have been using and where you purchased them. It may also be a good idea to take the packaging or a sample with you to your appointment.
Getting the right diagnosis on time is essential, and could potentially save your life. Don’t become vape pen lung disease’s next victim and get checked out right away.