University Of Utah Doctors Warn About Vaping Causing Pneumonia

Aug 6, 2019, 6:11 PM
FILE (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)...
FILE (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah –  A strong warning tonight from lung doctors at the University of Utah Hospital: vaping can cause life-threatening pneumonia, and is not a guaranteed safe alternative to cigarettes.  Two Utah patients who became gravely ill this summer after using e-cigarettes shared their stories today alongside the doctors who cured them.

“There are so many people vaping that even though it appears to be a rare reaction, it came to our attention because of its severity,” said Dr. Scott Aberegg, a pulmonologist at the University of Utah who said the hospital had seen patients in recent months with a wide variety of lung diseases, ranging from innocuous to life-threatening.

Utah has the lowest cigarette smoking rate in the country at 9%.  But, vaping and use of e-cigarettes has exploded nationwide, and here in Utah, especially among young adults, and teens.  One Utah woman, who had never smoked a cigarette, nearly died this summer from vaping.

“I thought it looked fun,” said Aubree Butterfield.  “All of my friends are doing it.”

She liked the smell and the taste of e-cigarettes.

“I started doing it just for that,” she said.

Butterfield said she vaped for four years, on and off for several months at a time.

“One Monday, I woke up, and I was just feeling really sick,” she said.  That was earlier this summer.  “I felt like I was coming down with a cold or something.”

Later that week, after she had been misdiagnosed with a virus, her mother took her to the hospital in Brigham City.  She knew it had to be something more serious.

“I was having a hard time breathing, vomiting, coughing up blood, shortness of breath,” Butterfield said.

Doctors didn’t know what was going on and thought she might be having a heart attack. After x-rays, they discovered fluid in her lungs, and she was airlifted to the University of Utah.

“At first they didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

Butterfield didn’t even think of telling the doctors that she vaped because she used e-cigarettes occasionally.

“I wasn’t super vocal about my vaping because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, because they make it seem like it’s OK and safe,” she said.

That week, she found out she had a rare form of lipoid pneumonia.  She said, she only vaped a few times a week to help with anxiety.  But, she admitted, she felt addicted and vaped a lot when she first used e-cigarettes five years ago.

“I started noticing my chest was starting to hurt a little bit. So I slowly stopped,” she said.

“It was challenging to figure these cases out initially because it’s a previously unrecognized disease,” said Aberegg.

Pulmonologists first had to rule out bacterial and viral infections, and auto-immune diseases.  Ultimately,vaping oils, discovered in lung tissues, led them to e-cigarettes as the likely cause for the rare pneumonia for Butterfield and another patient.  Aberegg said there was no other explanation for what was going on.

The pulmonologist said they may have even previously dismissed some of the hazards of vaping, and not considered e-cigarette as a potential cause in these illnesses.  If these cases had happened during the flu season, they would have been too easy to pass off as influenza cases, he said.

“There’s a push to perceive it as a safer alternative to smoking,” he said.  “It’s not a guaranteed safe alternative to cigarettes as these cases demonstrated.”

“I was just like upset that they aren’t more open about how scary this can be,” said Butterfield.

But, she said she feels happier now that she knows what made her sick so that she could quit.  Doctors still aren’t exactly sure what her immediate future health will be like. She is still on oxygen, and may need to keep using is for a couple more months.

The doctor’s biggest concern?  They don’t know what in the oils is making people sick.

“If you are vaping and you develop a flu-like illness or respiratory symptoms, I think it’s worth considering that maybe the vaping is the cause of that,” said Aberegg.

His advice: if you start to have flu-like symptoms, stop the vaping and see if the symptoms go away.  If they don’t, see a doctor.

For others who are vaping, Butterfield shares this advice:

“At least take my story into consideration.  Think about it.  Look for those symptoms, especially shortness of breath, chest pain and vomiting.”

Others can keep vaping if they like, she said. But, she’s done.

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University Of Utah Doctors Warn About Vaping Causing Pneumonia