Here’s a not-so-friendly reminder that vaping isn’t exactly harmless: An 18-year-old woman recently came down with something called “wet lung” after just three weeks of using e-cigs.
The news comes from a case study, published in the journal Pediatrics, which breaks down the story of formerly healthy woman who started vaping, and then started having trouble breathing, along with a cough and chest pain that got worse when she took deep breaths.
After just three weeks of vaping, her condition was bad enough to warrant an ER visit, where doctors admitted her to the pediatric ICU and started her on antibiotics. When her condition got worse, doctors had to intubate her (meaning, they put a tube into her windpipe to help her breathe) and put tubes in her chest to drain fluid that was building up in there. She was also put on a mechanical ventilator (again, to help her breathe).
The woman was eventually diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, aka “wet lung,” a rare immune system disorder that affects the lungs, causing them to become inflamed as an allergic reaction to inhaled dust, fungus, molds, or chemicals, per the American Lung Association.
She was then treated with an IV of methylprednisolone, a drug that treats severe allergic reactions. She was able to stop using the mechanical ventilator within a few days. Hopefully, she tossed her e-cig after all that scariness, too.
The researchers point out that this is the first reported case of a teenager developing wet lung from vaping and should definitely raise some eyebrows with parents and pediatricians.
Let’s talk about wet lung…
Wet lung isn’t something everyone can get—it depends on how your body’s immune system reacts to certain substances, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Certain factors also increase your risk of developing wet lung, like age, environment, family history and genetics, lifestyle habits, and sex or gender.
If you do come down with wet lung and it’s detected early, you’ll probably be okay. If it goes on long enough without treatment, and you continue to be exposed to whatever is irritating you, it can cause permanent scarring in your lungs—making it hard to breathe in the future, according to the American Lung Association.
Can anything else cause wet lung?
Plenty of things. The condition is also known as bird fancier’s lung, farmer’s lung, hot tub lung, and humidifier lung—you get the idea. You can develop wet lung from being exposed to the following things, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute:
Again, wet lung is dependent on your immune system, so it’s possible to be exposed to these things and have no issues, says Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif.
But with e-cigarettes, it gets tricky. The “juice” used in them usually contains nicotine, along with other solvents and flavors. When you atomize those ingredients (i.e., turn them into a vapor), it can be hard to know what, exactly, will trigger a reaction, says Osita Onugha, M.D., a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
“In general, this is a cautionary tale for young people who think that vaping isn’t as severe as smoking,” he says.
What wet lung symptoms should I look out for?
The symptoms of wet lung can vary depending on how severe your case is and how sensitive you are to the irritant, but they generally include a flu-like illness that causes a fever, chills, muscle or joint pain, or headaches, a rattling cough, chronic bronchitis, shortness of breath, weight loss, and fatigue, the American Lung Association says. People can even turn blue because they don’t get enough oxygen in, Casciari says.
If you develop any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor ASAP or get to your local ER. “You’re going to be in bad shape,” Casciari says. Wet lung can feel like the flu but, while the flu tends to crop up between October and May, wet lung can happen any time, the American Lung Association points out.
You might also notice that you have a dry cough or shortness of breath when you’re exposed to something in particular—that’s also a tip-off.
If you’re vaping in an attempt to quit cigarettes, don’t panic and assume that this will happen to you—Casciari says this is an “unusual reaction.” But it’s a good reminder that you really shouldn’t just take up a vaping habit for kicks. “This kind of thing is possible,” Casciari points out.
The bottom line: Developing wet lung from vaping is uncommon, but it’s definitely possible—so if you have any unusual reactions while smoking e-cigs, see your doctor ASAP.
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