Conference Coverage

Acute EVALI remains a diagnosis of exclusion



ED physicians and hospitalists should consider a diagnosis of e-cigarette associated lung injury (EVALI) across a broad range of nonspecific symptoms, according to a synthesis of current information presented at the virtual Pediatric Hospital Medicine.

Respiratory symptoms, including cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath are common but so are constitutive symptoms, including fever, sore throat, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, said Yamini Kuchipudi, MD, a staff physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, during the session at the virtual meeting, sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association.

If EVALI is not considered across this broad array of symptoms, of which respiratory complaints might not be the most prominent at the time of presentation, the diagnosis might be delayed, Dr. Kuchipudi warned during the virtual meeting.

Teenagers and young adults are the most common users of e-cigarettes and vaping devices. In these patients or in any individual suspected of having EVALI, Dr. Kuchipudi recommended posing questions about vaping relatively early in the work-up “in a confidential and nonjudgmental way.”

Eliciting a truthful history will be particularly important, because the risk of EVALI appears to be largely related to vaping with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing products rather than with nicotine alone. Although the exact cause of EVALI is not yet completely clear, this condition is now strongly associated with additives to the THC, according to Issa Hanna, MD, of the department of pediatrics at the University of Florida, Jacksonville.

“E-liquid contains products like hydrocarbons, vitamin E acetate, and heavy metals that appear to damage the alveolar epithelium by direct cellular inflammation,” Dr. Hanna explained.

These products are not only found in THC processed for vaping but also for dabbing, a related but different form of inhalation that involves vaporization of highly concentrated THC waxes or resins. Dr. Hanna suggested that the decline in reported cases of EVALI, which has followed the peak incidence in September 2019, is likely to be related to a decline in THC additives as well as greater caution among users.

E-cigarettes were introduced in 2007, according to Dr. Hanna, but EVALI was not widely recognized until cases began accruing early in 2019. By June 2019, the growing number of case reports had attracted the attention of the media as well as public health officials, intensifying the effort to isolate the risks and causes.

Consistent with greater use of e-cigarettes and vaping among younger individuals, nearly 80% of the 2,807 patients hospitalized for EVALI in the United States by February of this year occurred in individuals aged less than 35 years, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The median age was less than 25 years. Of these hospitalizations, 68 deaths (2.5%) in 29 states and Washington, D.C., were attributed to EVALI.

Because of the nonspecific symptoms and lack of a definitive diagnostic test, EVALI is considered a diagnosis of exclusion, according to Abigail Musial, MD, who is completing a fellowship in hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s. She presented a case in which a patient suspected of EVALI went home after symptoms abated on steroids.

“Less than 24 hours later, she returned to the ED with tachypnea and hypoxemia,” Dr. Musial recounted. Although a chest x-ray at the initial evaluation showed lung opacities, a repeat chest x-ray when she returned to the ED showed bilateral worsening of these opacities and persistent elevation of inflammatory markers.

“She was started on steroids and also on antibiotics,” Dr. Musial said. “She was weaned quickly from oxygen once the steroids were started and was discharged on hospital day 3.”

For patients suspected of EVALI, COVID-19 testing should be part of the work-up, according to Dr. Kuchipudi. She also recommended an x-ray or CT scan of the lung as well as an evaluation of inflammatory markers.

Dr. Kuchipudi said that more invasive studies than lung function tests, such as bronchoalveolar lavage or lung biopsy, might be considered when severe symptoms make aggressive diagnostic studies attractive.

Steroids and antibiotics typically lead to control of acute symptoms, but patients should be clinically stable for 24-48 hours prior to hospital discharge, according to Dr. Kuchipudi. Follow-up after discharge should include lung function tests and imaging 2-4 weeks later to confirm resolution of abnormalities.

Dr. Kuchipudi stressed the opportunity that an episode of EVALI provides to induce patients to give up nicotine and vaping entirely. Such strategies, such as a nicotine patch, deserve consideration, but she also cautioned that e-cigarettes for smoking cessation should not be recommended to EVALI patients.

The speakers reported no potential conflicts of interest relevant to this study.

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