Vaping and COVID-19 can show identical damaging effects to teens
While the effects of e-cigarettes and vaping have been more thoroughly studied, health professional are now learning that having COVID-19 can cause similar detrimental effects to the lungs.
Data also suggests that adolescents who vape are at increased risk of becoming infected with and developing a severe case of COVID. To make matters worse, lung damage caused by vaping can make it harder for the body to fight infection.
“Vaping causes irritation and injury to the lung,” said Dr. Lauren Camarda, a pediatric pulmonologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “As the lungs react to the inhaled foreign and toxic material, an inflammatory reaction occurs, which can lead to fibrosis of the lung.”
In continuous users, the effects are known as “e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury,” or EVALI. Imaging tests on these individuals may show changes like pneumonia or interstitial lung disease.
Dr. Camarda says some affected patients have only vaped for days, weeks or months, while others vaped for years and only developed symptoms when product or use patterns changed. Others who have vaped for years may have no identified trigger as to why they ultimately manifest symptoms.
“One of the more striking experiences over the past year has been the similarities in presentation between patients with COVID and EVALI,” says Dr. Camarda. “Both groups of patients can present with respiratory and systemic symptoms and have abnormal imaging scans and elevated inflammatory markers in blood tests.”
Those who vape may experience shortness of breath or other difficulty breathing, chest pain or chest discomfort and cough. Some may require treatment in intensive care units, requiring ventilators to support breathing. Others have even died.
She explains that in the early months of the pandemic, adolescents were being admitted to the hospital for what clinicians presumed was COVID, but the teens tested negative multiple times. The care team would ultimately learn these adolescents had a history of vaping, and they’d then be managed for EVALI.
“We’re fearful of the effects of COVID, but we should also be strongly concerned about the health effects of vaping,” she warns. “There are reports of long-lasting respiratory symptoms and lung damage in patients who vape.”
Dr. Camarda strongly advises quitting vaping or smoking, even if there are factors that make it difficult, like the addictive stimulant nicotine. The rise in mental health issues during the pandemic also haven’t made things easier, as many adolescents use vaping products to self-manage behavioral symptoms like anxiety.
Dr. Camarda says that fortunately, many of the pediatric patients who have returned for follow-up care after quitting vaping have improved imaging scans and lung function tests. But for now, there is not enough information available to know if these patients will face long-term effects.
“Many things make quitting challenging, but your health care team is here to support you,” she says.