teen vaping COVID -19
Vaping has caused serious lung damage in youth and young adults. This may increase their risk of complications from COVID-19. Photo source: iStock

It was only a few months ago that vaping among teens and young adults was making headlines with stories of vaping-related deaths and lung injuries. Now, there may be another danger for those who vape—the risk for serious illness from the COVID-19.

That’s frightening considering the use of vaping or e-cigarettes has exploded among American youth. Last year alone, we saw a 78% increase in the number of high school kids vaping. According to preliminary data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 27.5% of youth are now using e-cigarettes.

With more than 2,800 reported cases of severe lung injury related to vaping in all 50 states, the dangers are evident. Not to mention, a disturbing 52% of all patients suffering these ill effects from vaping are under the age of 25 — a direct correlation to the surge in e-cigarette use among teens and young adults.

Vaping: playing with fire

Many people think COVID-19 will only affect older adults, those who are immunocompromised, and those with pre-existing conditions. However, we have learned that the potential of devastating effects of infection with the coronavirus are not limited to those groups.

Also, we now know that smoking and vaping can lead to irreversible lung damage, some of which have yet to be diagnosed. We are already aware of the toxic soup of chemicals that youths who vape are filling their lungs including nicotine, of course, but also:

  • isoprene – a main component of rubber
  • propylene glycol –  used in antifreeze and to de-ice airplanes
  • formaldehyde – a known carcinogen used to preserve dead bodies
  • N-nitrosonornicotine – another Group 1 carcinogen
  • toluene, a solvent used in paint, nail polish, and to tan leather

All of these chemicals are present along with nickel, lead, cadmium, and many other trace chemicals. Each of these chemicals can wreak havoc on the lungs of developing teens and young adults.  They can cause a host of pulmonary issues that can exacerbate the effects of COVID-19.

Related article: Toxic Chemicals Are a Threat to the Health of Our Children

Specific vaping related pulmonary conditions that may increase vulnerability to COVID-19

There are a few illnesses that can develop from the use of vapes/e-cigarettes that may increase vulnerability to the virus:

Bronchiectasis 

It is a life-long condition that thickens and widens the airways causing mucus to collect due to the inability of the airways to clear. Having this condition makes individuals extremely susceptible to respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis 

It is an interstitial lung disease resulting in the inflammation of the lungs due to a reaction from an inhalant – in this case, vape juice. Progression of this condition can require lung transplantation.

Double-lung transplantation 

In November 2019, doctors at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, performed what is believed to be the first double lung transplant due to vaping-related illness. While this has been reported once, we now know that it is possible. Should this procedure take place, the individual will be immunocompromised indefinitely and at great risk of suffering from the worst symptoms of COVID-19.

In addition to us not knowing what the long-term effects of heating, vaporizing, and inhaling these substances might be, we also don’t know the level of susceptibility people who vape have to COVID-19. 

A wakeup call that’s long overdue

While health officials have been warning seniors and those with underlying medical conditions about their risks with the coronavirus, we are doing our young people a disservice if we don’t sound the alarm for them as well.

We must do everything we can to educate teens and young adults about the dangers of vaping. This is especially as we endure this pandemic because as of now we just don’t know for certain what the impact of vaping will be related to COVID-19 severity.

We also shouldn’t assume that these young vapers know the risks of vaping and the effects that could arise as the number of COVID-19 cases increase. 

Already there have been anecdotal stories about the possible effects. In early March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio informed the public that a 22-year-old Brooklyn man was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was hospitalized.

The man didn’t appear to have any pre-existing conditions besides the fact that he was a vaper. “Why is a 22-year-old man stable but hospitalized at this point? The one factor we know of is he was a vaper. So, we don’t know of any pre-existing conditions, but we do think the fact that he is a vaper is affecting this situation,” said de Blasio during the press conference

Related content: Why Some People Struggle with Addiction and Some Do Not

Vaping and COVID-19: It’s not over yet

As a nation, we are in uncharted territory with COVID-19. We should not wait for the science to catch up–we need to act now.

Related COVID19 Content:  Greater Risk of Blood Clots in COVID-19 Patients

It could take months or years before we have all the answers. If we act now, we may be able to save lives, prevent unnecessary hospitalizations, and reduce the risk of overburdening our healthcare system at a time when we must all do our part to end this pandemic. 

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Mark Calarco, D.O.
Dr. Mark Calarco served as the National Medical Director at American Addiction Centers (AAC) from 2013 – 2018. With the addition of Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, who assumed that position in August 2018, Dr. Calarco has been appointed National Medical Director for Clinical Diagnostics. In this position, he works closely with Addiction Labs to conduct medical and laboratory research as well as develop innovative products and services that will improve patient outcomes. Calarco brings more than 25 years of experience to the role, including a background in family and emergency medicine.

As a child, Calarco developed an interest in health care and a passion for helping others after losing his brother due to a medical error. He went on to attend medical school and to become a family physician. Today, his commitment to clinical excellence and serving those in need has never been stronger as he leads a team of providers who are transforming lives every day.

Calarco is also a thought leader in the addiction industry and an established researcher. In 2017, he led two original studies at AAC with the findings presented to the American Academy of Addiction Psychology.

His talents also include speaking five languages – Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian.

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