Investigating Illness: Wisconsin Doctors Link Vaping To Mysterious Illness In Teens

Dec 17, 2019

When teenagers started showing up at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin with severe lung damage, doctors weren’t sure what to make of it.

Normally, a young, healthy lung would be full of cavernous airways. Instead, doctors found a complex web of gunk filling the chambers of the lungs. It looked like a severe kind a pneumonia, but that diagnosis didn’t make sense. Then, doctors found something linking these teens: they all vaped.

Unlike traditional, combustible cigarettes, the doctors at Children's Hospital didn't have a lot of research to work with when trying to diagnose their patients. 

“Vaping, I think, snuck up on us. And you’re like going: When did this start? How did you get into this? And I think it was an underestimation of the ramp up that was happening in the community. We didn’t have the canary yet that said, 'You have a problem in your community,' " says Dr. Michael Meyer, medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (ICU), who was part of the team of doctors treating these patients. 

"Vaping, I think, snuck up on us. And you're like going: When did this start? How did you get into this," asks Dr. Michael Meyer.

Dr. Lynn D’Andrea was one of the first physicians to work with these patients and connect the problems they were experiencing. D'Andrea is the medical director of pulmonary services, and she explains that doctors didn't initially connect these patients' conditions, but they shared a lot of similar symptoms. 

"When they came in, they all had coughing, shortness of breath, a lot of them had fevers. Those were kind of the acute symptoms that brought them to the hospital. Although in retrospect, for probably the month to three months before they had been having some nausea, decreased appetite, weight loss," she explains.

READ: She Survived The ICU. Now, She Has A Message: Quit Vaping!  

These shared symptoms, along with the similar chest X-rays and the patients' personal histories, allowed physicians to connect the dots. 

"It's a combination of having a group of teenagers in the hospital at the same time, whose pattern of disease doesn't follow the pattern that we're accustomed to seeing," says Meyer. 

"The real problem is the nicotine, it's the exposure to chemicals, it's the long-term effects on a child's body that is maturing while they're doing this," says Dr. Michael Meyer.

Both D'Andrea and Meyer say that a lot more research has to be done into how vaping can impact both child and adult bodies. But they agree that vaping is a dangerous habit for children that can cause lifelong addiction.

"The real problem is the nicotine, it's the exposure to chemicals, it's the long-term effects on a child's body that is maturing while they're doing this, and these are the unknowns," says Meyer. "It took us 40 years to figure out cigarette smoking was bad for you. Vaping's been going on for three, five [years], right? We're just at the beginning of this crisis."