'Popcorn Lung': How Vaping Gave One Teen a Life-Threatening Disease

Karen Bosma, Simon Landman

E-cigarettes first emerged in North America in 2004 — as a supposedly safer alternative to smoking traditional, carcinogenic, tobacco cigarettes, and as a potential means to help smokers quit smoking altogether.

However, with heavy marketing, an enticing array of flavours and the potential to inhale drugs other than nicotine, vaping has become increasingly popular, particularly among youth, attracting those who have never smoked before.

We recently published a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal describing a case of severe, life-threatening airway injury related to vaping that occurred in a Canadian youth.

The 17-year-old, who had been vaping daily using a variety of flavoured cartridges and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis), was hospitalized and required life support in the intensive care unit, including mechanical ventilation and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) — oxygenation of blood outside of the body.

First case of vaping ‘popcorn lung?’

After ruling out other potential causes, we suspected the patient had bronchiolitis obliterans. This condition is also known as “popcorn lung” based on its initial description among microwave popcorn factory workers exposed to chemical flavourants.

He narrowly avoided the need for a double-lung transplant, spent a total of 47 days in hospital and may have suffered long-term damage to his airways.

He is currently recovering from his lengthy intensive care unit stay and is abstaining from e-cigarettes, marijuana and tobacco.

One in four Grade 12 students

Vaping has rapidly increased in popularity in recent years. A study of Canadian youth aged 16 to 19 found that e-cigarette use among this group increased to 37 per cent in 2018.

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