Eight teens were hospitalized in July with seriously damaged lungs in Wisconsin, the state Department of Health Services reported Thursday.
"We suspect that these injuries were caused by vaping," said Dr. Michael Gutzeit, chief medical officer at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin where the teens were admitted, at a press conference.
Their symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue, worsened over days or weeks before the patients arrived at Children's Hospital. Some reported fever, anorexia, chest pain, nausea and diarrhea. Scans and X-rays showed inflammation or swelling throughout both lungs, said Gutzeit.
All eight patients, who live in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Winnebago counties, tested negative for infectious diseases and reported vaping in the weeks and months before their hospital admission.
"The severity of health condition has varied, with some patients needing assistance in order to breathe," said Gutzeit. He added that the teens have shown improvement after treatment, but any long-term effects are not yet known. With "an exponential increase in the number of teens vaping," Gutzeit is concerned that more teens will develop similar lung damage that requires hospital treatment.
In Wisconsin, 11% of middle schoolers have tried electronic tobacco products, while 4% of middle schoolers are current users, according to the health department. By the time they reach high school, 32% have tried e-cigarettes and 20% consider themselves current users.
Vaping is relatively new, since e-cigs were introduced in the US less than 15 years ago. So, scientists do not understand all the ways vaping can harm health.
Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the same highly addictive chemical compound found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. Nicotine can damage the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.
Also, there have been cases of the devices exploding and injuring users.
Add to that, the cloud is not harmless "water vapor," as many teens believe. The vapor cloud results from burning e-liquids, which can cause vomiting, confusion, heart rhythm problems, coma and even death if ingested, Wisconsin's health department says. And scientists who have analyzed e-liquids say that sometimes these fluids contain heavy metals like nickel, tin and lead, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teens can buy e-liquids that taste like gummy bears, cotton candy, peanut butter cups and cookies 'n cream, to name a few. As they experiment, some kids find their way to the stronger stuff: More than 80% of teens who have ever used tobacco start with a flavored product, one study shared by the Wisconsin health department found.
Wisconsin is not alone in this problem. Nationwide, vaping among US middle and high school students increased 900% between 2011 and 2015, according to a report from the US Surgeon General. Though a small decline in popularity followed 2015, current use of e-cigs has increased 78% among high school students during the past year alone, the same report found. Overall, more than 3.6 million teens across the country, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students, currently use e-cigs.
"It's very important for teens and parents to understand more about vaping," said Gutzeit. "Talk to each other. Understand the risks of vaping."