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Doctors urge parents to be on alert for signs of vaping illness in their kids

"Everybody needs to be on alert," one doctor said.

The death of an Illinois patient with a vaping-related lung disease brings a new urgency to identifying those at risk of developing the dangerous illness before severe symptoms appear.

Some of the vaping-related lung illnesses have been in teenagers — some as young as 15, according to Dr. Jacob Kaslow, a pediatric pulmonary fellow at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

That means parents and pediatricians could be one of the first lines of defense when it comes to spotting symptoms and identifying at-risk adolescents. 

"Everybody needs to be on alert," Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, said.

Indeed, the popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers has surged in recent years. The CDC has reported a 78 percent increase in high school students who said they'd vaped between 2017 and 2018.

Swanson said pediatricians already screen older kids and teenagers for tobacco use, but the recent surge in vaping-related illnesses suggests this should be front-of-mind for physicians.

"When a child comes in with any respiratory complaints — particularly in the middle school or high school ages — we need to screen them for use of vaping products, and possibly triage them differently until we know what's going on," Swanson said.

Indeed, doctors are increasingly changing their first line of questioning to include vaping history when they encounter patients in respiratory distress.

Teenagers with a history of vaping have complained of coughing and lungs that feel like they're burning when they try to inhale deeply. Symptoms may be particularly apparent in teen athletes, who struggle to fill their lungs with enough air to keep up with demanding physical workouts.

"If a child develops a cough, and it's unusual and comes out of nowhere," Swanson said, "parents really should be asking, 'Hey honey, have you been vaping?'"