man with breathing tubes in a hospital bed
Jenn Ryan
Jenn Ryan
January 11, 2024 ·  6 min read

The Dangerous Impacts of Vaping

This article was originally published on August 26, 2019, and has since been updated.

People around the world have been paying even more attention to vaping as more than 150 people in the United States—and likely even more by the time you’re reading this article—have been hospitalized for breathing problems linked to vaping.

First of all, ‘vaping’ doesn’t produce purely vapor—it’s technically an aerosol [1], and this aerosol can contain toxic chemicals that people can develop a hypersensitivity to, even after years of vaping [2].

Take the case of Sean Bills, a 31-year-old father of three from Utah who is currently on life support for lipoid pneumonia (a rare form of pneumonia) as the result of vaping. Sean’s wife says he vaped daily for two years before suddenly developing shortness of breath and pain when breathing [3].

Or Dylan Nelson, a 26-year-old father from Wisconsin, who had vaped for a year before falling ill. His lungs filled with fluid, and he was placed in a medically-induced coma. He described his difficulty breathing like breathing through a straw, with other symptoms including coughing, hard breathing, and a racing heart [4].

Others, like 17-year-old Tryston Zohfeld, experienced extreme fatigue, chills, nausea, and weight loss before developing shortness of breath and chest pain. After 48 hours, Tryston’s lungs failed and he was placed on a ventilator, where machines kept him alive in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for 10 days. After losing a total of 30 pounds and spending 18 days in the hospital, Tryston is now learning to walk again and still suffers from coughing and fatigue [5].

And another adult from Illinois, whose name has yet to be disclosed, has died from vaping-related lung distress [6].

All of these patients and the 150 others like them reported vaping prior to their hospitalization.

It’s not clear which products or chemicals are causing these severe, life-threatening illnesses when it comes to vaping. Some patients have said they used their vaping products to inhale THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that gets users high.

Others, like Dylan Nelson, bought vaping cartridges off the street and not from a shop. The particular brand Dylan purchased, Dank Vapes, appears to have gone out of business several years ago.

Many of these patients were admitted to the hospital with what doctors thought was severe pneumonia, only to get worse with treatment and end up in the ICU on a ventilator. While vaping has been the common factor in all cases, it’s unclear if the symptoms are the result of a commonly contaminated vaping liquid or device.

However, physicians are ruling out other potential causes in all of these cases—they’re convinced vaping is the culprit, although they’ve yet to determine exactly why.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require e-cigarette manufacturers to disclose their ingredients on the label, so ultimately, users of the product have no idea what they are inhaling [7].

Scientists who have third-party tested vaping products have found over 40 dangerous chemicals in e-cigarettes, including heavy metals, formaldehyde and benzene (both known carcinogens), and isoprene (which is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen) [8].

Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress from Vaping

Research shows that chemicals found in e-cigarettes are irritating to delicate lung tissue and can cause damage when inhaled [9].

Doctors say that these patients have exhibited symptoms ranging from:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and use e-cigarettes, it’s essential to seek treatment, as respiratory ailments can continue to get worse, and many of these patients have had respiratory failure and needed intensive care.

In fact, imaging on some patients revealed that ground glass opacity was present, which is a nonspecific finding that indicates damage to the lung tissue or even partial collapse of the lung [10].

The Verdict on the Safety of E-Cigarettes

It’s not clear if these patients will have permanent lung damage or, for some, if they will even recover. Some have been released and are recovering but will need follow-up scans to assess for permanent damage.

E-cigarettes have been available in the United States since 2006, and their use has gained popularity in recent years, especially among teenagers. It’s illegal for teenagers under the age of 18 to purchase vaping devices, but yet 3.62 million middle and high school students used vaping products in 2018, and e-cigarette use increased by 78 percent from 2017 to 2018 alone [11].

However, their widespread use and acceptance among many people does not mean that they’re safe. Health authorities say they cannot assure anyone that vaping is safe, as some people develop a sensitivity to these chemicals called hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which is lung inflammation as a result of an allergic reaction to chemicals [12].

However, pro-vapers have weighed in on the issue, saying that it’s not been proven that vaping is causing these illnesses. One such person is Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. He says that each month 10 million adults vape nicotine without major issues. “It appears much more likely that the products causing lung damage are amateur-made street vapes containing THC or illegal drugs, not nicotine,” he claims [13].

JUUL, a leading e-cigarette manufacturer, has merely said it’s monitoring reports of the illnesses [14]. Others say that vaping has not been definitively linked to the series of mysterious lung illnesses, and their safety doesn’t need to be called into question. But health experts say otherwise.

Teens Are More Susceptible, But They Aren’t the Only Ones Getting Sick

While some patients like Dylan Nelson and Tryston Zohfeld have been released from the hospital and are slowly recovering, some, such as Sean Bills, may never recover.

Despite the suspicion that these patients have become sick from illegal or street-purchased vaping products, experts aren’t so sure. E-cigarettes are considered to be a threat to your health no matter where they’re purchased.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable, as their lungs aren’t fully developed, and heavy metals and other particles are absorbed into the lung tissue—the long-term consequences of which we do not yet know. Some physicians say they see one child a week with vaping-related complications.

However, teens aren’t the only ones being hospitalized—adults in their 30s and 50s are being hospitalized as well, so it’s not just young people who are affected. 

While vaping is arguably safer and less dangerous than traditional cigarettes, it hasn’t been proven to be safe, especially not for children or teenagers, and, as we’ve seen, it can also lead to severe health complications. You’re better off skipping the flavored aerosol. 

Keep Reading: A woman got the incurable condition ‘cobalt lung’ after vaping marijuana for just 6 months