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Lipid-laden macrophages found in lungs of vaping patients. (Photo: Andrew Hansen, MD, Jordan Valley Medical Center)
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University Doctors Identify Common Characteristic Of Vaping-Related Illness

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Doctors at the University of Utah are warning people to stop using e-cigarette products after making a discovery related to vaping illnesses seen around the country.

The challenge for doctors has been deciphering between an infection or the vaping illness. U of U health officials on Friday announced they have identified a previously unrecognized characteristic of the vaping-related respiratory illness emerging in clusters across the U.S. in recent months.

Within the lungs of these patients are large immune cells containing numerous oily droplets, called lipid-laden macrophages, according to University of Utah Health. The finding could allow doctors to definitively diagnose the condition and provide clues into the causes of this nascent syndrome.

“While it is too soon to be sure, these lipid-laden macrophages may turn out to be useful to confirm or rule out this disease,” said the study’s senior author Scott Aberegg, a critical care pulmonologist at U of U Health. “They may also be helpful in understanding what is causing this illness.”

There have been six deaths so far in the United States and multiple cases of illness reported in Utah.

“I think it’s fair to call it early phases of an epidemic,” said U of U pulmonologist Cherly Pirozzia. “I mean this is something that has really spiked since the summer, and it’s pretty new.”

WATCH: University doctors on vaping and lipoid pneumonia

Health officials haven’t been able to definitively diagnose the illness, but they said the majority of patients have been young, previously healthy people now suffering from a vaping-related sickness.

The symptoms are similar to a severe case of the flu and include shortness of breath, whole body inflammation, vomiting and fever.

“I just don’t think vaping is wise right now,” said pulmonologist Sean Callahan.

Lung scans from patients with vaping illness look like a serious viral or bacterial pneumonia, but those tests come back negative, according to the report. Diagnosis has been based on exclusion of known causes of similar respiratory illnesses combined with knowing the patient has a history of vaping.

“We are finding very high levels of microphages that contain oil or lipid-like material that is not normal, not something that we see in the lung with infection or other forms of injury,” Pirozzi said.

Doctors said they are hoping their discovery will be a useful marker for diagnosing the disease and hopefully offer clues to the specific cause of the illness.