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October 11, 2019

What it's like to survive the mysterious, vaping-linked lung illness

Daily Briefing

    After vaping for years, 18-year-old Piper Johnson spent a week in the ICU with a lung illness officials say is linked to e-cigarette use and vaping. Now, she's warning other teenagers of the risks, and urging them to kick their vaping habit, Allison Aubrey reports for NPR.

    Background: Cases of a mysterious vaping illness top 1,000, CDC says

    CDC data updated Thursday shows the number of reported cases of the vaping-linked lung illness reached 1,299 as of Oct. 8, with 26 reported deaths. Cases of the illness have been reported in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and one U.S. territory, with deaths reported in 21 states. Alaska is the only state with no reported cases of the illness, the Wall Street Journal reports.

    According to the data, about 80% of patients in the reported cases are younger than 35, 21% are 18 to 20 years old, and 15% are younger than 18. The number of reported cases of the illness is up by 219 from last week, the Journal reports.

    Anne Schuchat—CDC's principal deputy director, who is overseeing the agency's investigation into the matter—earlier this month said the number of reported cases is rising at a "brisk" pace, and the cases typically involve "really serious injuries." She said, "[W]e don't know how well people will recover from them, whether lung damage may be permanent."

    Some early patients with the illness who have been out of the hospital for several weeks have begun receiving follow-up care, the Journal reports. According to the Journal, doctors are reporting that patients' recoveries have varied. Some patients have appeared to make full recoveries, while others continue to have trouble breathing.

    According to CDC, a majority of patients with the illness have reported using products containing the compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the high-inducing chemical found in marijuana. However, investigators said they are not yet narrowing the scope of their probe, and CDC noted that 13% of cases involve patients who reported using only nicotine vaping products.

    Schuchat said CDC recommends that people abstain from vaping products, and particularly products that use THC. "We really have the feeling right now that there might be a lot of different, nasty things in e-cigarette or vaping products," she said.

    Vaping illness lands Johnson in ICU

    Johnson said she first started vaping when she was a sophomore in high school, and was addicted to vaping products by her senior year. Johnson said she often would vape two to three Juul pods per week. According to Aubrey, each pod contains the same amount of nicotine found in about one pack of traditional cigarettes.

    "I was vaping Juul brand, off-brand pods, some disposable vapes," Johnson said, adding that she would also vape THC occasionally.

    Johnson said her peers were vaping, too. "It's highly addictive," Johnson said, but she added, "We were all convinced it was safe."

    But after senior year, when Johnson was about to embark on a trip across the country to start college, she began to experience chest pain.

    Johnson said she took Advil, hoping the pain would go away. However, Johnson said during her drive to college, the pain got "worse and worse." She eventually developed a high fever, felt lethargic, and noticed a rapid heartbeat, and sought care at an ED in Colorado.

    ED doctors performed an X-ray and found Johnson had fluid in her lungs. They told her she had a form of pneumonia and prescribed her steroids and antibiotics. But Johnson's oxygen levels dropped while she was in the ED, and she was transferred to the ICU. She ultimately stayed in the hospital for seven days.

    "I was terrified," Johnson said. "I was laying in my bed sobbing because it hurt so bad to breathe."

    After the ICU

    Johnson said she is feeling better after her time in the ICU, but added that she's still not 100% well. Doctors also don't know if the illness will result in any long-term adverse effects, Aubrey writes.

    Johnson has stopped vaping, and now is working to encourage other teenagers to quit. She's even part of a group of youth activists who are working to pressure the e-cigarette industry and government to crack down on sales of e-cigarette and vaping products.  

    "People fail to realize that you're deeply endangering yourself by doing this stuff," Johnson said. "We're really the generation of, like, vegetarians, organic foods, mental-health days, and self-care- days," but with vaping, "we're pumping our bodies full of chemical without even knowing what it does to us" (Aubrey, "Shots," NPR, 10/9; Abbott, Wall Street Journal, 10/10; Lovelace, CNBC, 10/10).

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