When Vaping Could Send You to the Doctor

The use of e-cigarettes, vaping, has rapidly increased in popularity in recent years. As it has, so have rates of a rare respiratory illness. Vaping is the practice of inhaling steam (vapor) made when a liquid is heated inside an e-cigarette. Research indicates that the relationship between vaping and respiratory illness is no coincidence, so it is important that we discuss this condition known as popcorn lung.

What is popcorn lung?

Popcorn lung is clinically referred to as bronchiolitis obliterans. It is a rare disease that develops in the bronchioles, the small airways in the lungs. The bronchioles are the smallest airways that branch off from two larger airways called the bronchi. The bronchi split off from the single airway known as the trachea. Bronchiolitis obliterans can cause narrowing and scarring in these small airways, resulting in coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. 

Popcorn lung was first discovered in a group of people who worked in a popcorn factory. They all breathed the same air, which held particles of a chemical called diacetyl. This is the chemical that creates the buttery flavor in microwave popcorn and other packaged foods. Diacetyl is also present in some of the liquids sold for e-cigarettes. According to statistics, instances of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use–associated lung injury (EVALI), including bronchiolitis obliterans from diacetyl exposure, have skyrocketed in people who vape. 

As of February 2020, nearly 3,000 EVALI-related deaths had been confirmed. Still, popcorn lung is believed to be a rare occurrence, even among people who vape. It is important to know, though, that as much as 90 percent of e-cigarettes tested just a few years ago were found to contain diacetyl or 2,3 pentanedione, another chemical that has been associated with popcorn lung. Consumers may look for diacetyl-free e-juice, and should also know when they should see a doctor for a consultation and examination of popcorn lung-type symptoms. These include:

  • dry cough
  • shortness of breath (difficulty breathing)
  • Wheezing

In addition to discussing health history, the doctor may order tests such as:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Pulmonary function testing
  • Bronchoscopy

If popcorn lung is diagnosed, a doctor may recommend lifestyle changes and a course of treatment. Early diagnosis is ideal because the scarring that affects the lungs is permanent. The best way to stop scarring from progressing is to stop inhaling the damaging chemicals. Second to that, patients may require treatment such as an inhaler to open the airways, steroid medication to reduce inflammation, or antibiotics to treat infection. In severe cases, a lung transplant may be needed. 

We are happy to say that popcorn lung is a rare condition and that, after studies identified its cause, more of the “juice” for e-cigarettes has been made without the harmful substance. 

With top technology, and over 30 years of experience Dr. Bowen has the expertise and experience to evaluate a variety of pulmonary symptoms. To schedule a consultation to discuss your symptoms, call our NYC office at 212-480-4062.

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