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Will Patients With Lung Illnesses Linked To Vaping Make A Full Recovery?


The CDC has ramped up its investigation of vaping, trying to nail down the cause of the sicknesses. There are almost 400 cases of serious lung illnesses linked to vaping and seven deaths. It appears most patients have fallen ill after vaping THC, a psychoactive component in cannabis. Can those patients expect to recover? NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into that.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Adam Hergenreder started vaping nicotine a few years back when he was in high school. And more recently, he began to vape THC. He says he bought the THC from a friend and didn't really know all that was in it. Then, last month, he ended up in the emergency room.

ADAM HERGENREDER: I was throwing up nonstop for three days, and it was difficult to breathe. And honestly, I was terrified.

AUBREY: It came on like the flu. And in the hospital, doctors did a CT scan.

HERGENREDER: And they caught a glimpse of the bottom portion of my lungs, and that's when they noticed just the severity of the damage.

AUBREY: He says his doctor told him he looked to have the lungs of a 70-year-old, which frightened him, since up to the time of his illness, he considered himself a healthy 18-year-old.

HERGENREDER: I knew that I was gasping for air. And like, I knew that I was struggling to breathe at certain points. But - I mean, just to think that they're that of a 70-year-old is just terrifying to even think about.

AUBREY: Hergenreder has stopped vaping and says he does feel better - but he still gets winded going up steps, and he's still on steroid medication. His story has garnered lots of attention, in part because he's filed a lawsuit. But his case raises an important question - can the people who've been so sickened after vaping expect to make a full recovery?

I asked doctors who've treated some of these patients. Daniel Fox is a pulmonary and critical care doctor at WakeMed in Raleigh, N.C. His hospital has treated seven patients, all of whom say they vaped THC or CBD. Many ended up with what's known as lipoid pneumonia.

DANIEL FOX: Lipoid pneumonia, or lipid pneumonia, is really just another word for saying that there's oils or fats that have entered the lung that should not be there.

AUBREY: This is usually seen in elderly patients, related to choking or aspiration. So Fox says it was a surprise to see this in younger patients. But part of it adds up, given that different types of oil are often used in vaping cartridges.

FOX: It has to be something that will vaporize quickly so that it can be inhaled.

AUBREY: He says it's not clear which substance or compounds in the vaping products are leading to harm. But...

FOX: When these substances enter the lungs, it can cause a profound inflammatory reaction within the lung that makes people really sick.

AUBREY: Fox says it's still early days, but the patients treated at his hospital do seem much better.

FOX: All of the patients that we have seen here have improved. Yeah. You know, all have been able to leave the hospital. You know, all are getting better.

AUBREY: But he says the possible long-term impacts are still unknown.

FOX: What I can say is that with every episode of bad inflammatory lung disease, which, you know, these cases would certainly fit into that category, that places people at risk. And you know, there's probably at least some irreversible damage that is done every time you have a significant inflammatory reaction within the lung tissue.

AUBREY: The extent of that is not clear, and lungs can heal. But pediatric pulmonologist Scott Schroeder of Tufts Medical Center says this illness could increase the risk of other lung problems down the line. He says it's too soon to know, but at the time the patients get sick, they tend to have a lot of inflammation in their lungs.

SCOTT SCHROEDER: Inflammation can cause scarring in the lungs, and so you can get restrictive lung disease. And you know, they might even develop asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

AUBREY: The chances of this may depend on how much and what people vape combined with their other behaviors and risk factors. He says it's complicated; each case is different. But big picture, Schroeder says, as scary as it may sound that one young vaping patient has been told he has the lungs of a 70-year-old, it really may not mean very much.

SCHROEDER: I mean, you know, there's some very healthy 70-year-olds out there. What you want - do you have the lungs of a 70-year-old smoker? Do you have the lungs of a 70-year-old athlete?

AUBREY: Schroeder says both vaping patients treated at his hospital are doing very well, and they'll continue to monitor their progress.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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