TDH asks health professionals to look out for vaping illness

Brandon Paykamian • Aug 24, 2019 at 4:07 PM

The Tennessee Department of Health asked local health care professionals to be on the lookout for severe respiratory illnesses among e-cigarette users in an advisory released Thursday.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues investigating a cluster of more than 150 cases of illness related to e-cigarette use in 16 states, the TDH wants health professionals to report any cases of suspected serious respiratory illness they treat among patients who use them or other vaping devices, so they can gain a clearer understanding of what they’re dealing with.

According to the TDH and CDC advisories, patients have had symptoms including cough, shortness of breath and fatigue, with symptoms growing worse over a period of days or weeks before admission to the hospital. Other symptoms may include fever, chest pain, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Most of these cases are among adolescents and young adults. 

Dr. Sam Delaune, director of education for the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, said the hospital has not recorded any cases similar to those in other states.

“We see a lot of (other types of) respiratory complaints. It’s entirely possible that we’ve had children with other underlying medical conditions that have been exacerbated by it. I’ve definitely seen asthmatics that have tried it and then experienced worsening of their symptoms,” he said Thursday, adding that they’re “vigilantly watching” for cases similar to those recorded by the CDC.

Delaune said it’s still difficult to pinpoint what’s causing these cases. He said it appears to be “inflammation of the lungs themselves,” but health professionals are “still trying to figure out exactly what the mechanism behind it is.”

“Because it’s a relatively new product, it just takes time to really see those effects, and we don’t even yet know the full scope of the damage it could be causing in the lungs of adolescent and young children,” he said.

“We don’t know yet — is it a direct effect of the nicotine? Is it a direct effect of the other additives besides the nicotine? Is it the immune system reacting to those? It’s very up in the air at this point, and that’s why the CDC is working so hard to have us report those cases so that we have the best knowledge to figure out what the cause is.”

Delaune said health professionals have good reason to be concerned about the potential dangers of e-cigarettes, particularly among young users.

“Oftentimes, they’re kind of marketed more to adult audiences as a way to stop smoking cigarettes and get off tobacco, but the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) has actually found that teens and adolescents that start using e-cigarettes are more likely than ones who don’t to change over to traditional tobacco products,” he said.

“Some of the statistics that are coming out now through the AAP, who has been looking into this pretty vigorously along with the CDC, shows up to 21% of high school students and up to 5% of middle school students report that they have tried vaping or e-cigarette use.”

Fidon Selimi, a manager at Planet Vapor, said underage use and the lack of long-term research are valid concerns.

But while his shop has strict identification policies to stop underage purchases for anyone visiting the store, he said they can’t stop customers from buying the product for someone under 18 without their knowledge. 

“With any kind of product, if someone wants it, they’re going to get it,” he said.

Selimi smoked traditional cigarettes for more than a decade before switching to vapor about five years ago. “One flight of stairs would kill me,” he pointed out, adding that he’s noticed improvements in how he feels since switching. 

“I’ve been vaping for five years, and I haven’t had a problem,” he said.

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