Dr. Philip Keiser, who leads the Galveston County Health District, said Monday the woman, a Galveston resident between 30 and 35, died on Dec. 29 after being treated at a local hospital for several months.
Keiser offered scant details about the woman’s specific case, citing patient confidentiality regulations, saying only that she had primarily been using vaping products delivering THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. She had presented symptoms of severe lung disease at the time she was admitted to the hospital.
“We’re very sad to report this death. I think it’s very sobering that we’re still seeing deaths from vaping illness,” Keiser said. “This is a very serious public health threat, and we would encourage people to avoid vaping products if at all possible.”
Nationally, over 2,500 cases of vaping-related illness have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with public health officials working to determine what the cases have in common and what might be the cause.
The outbreak of vaping illnesses is still considered a mystery because e-cigarettes — battery-powered devices that heat flavored liquid, sometimes laced with nicotine or THC, and turn it into a vapor the user inhales — have been used for years without known association with disease.
Keiser noted e-cigarettes have frequently been marketed as alternatives to smoking and he has personally treated patients who have quit smoking cigarettes by transitioning to vaping.
As of Friday, at least four other confirmed or probable cases in Galveston County sent patients to the hospital for e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury.
Texas announced its first vaping fatality in October, an older woman in North Texas. Dallas County health officials announced last week that a teenager died due to complications from vaping.
The vitamin E acetate used in vaping products to make THC, nicotine, and other compounds soluble to smoke may be closely associated to lung disease, Keiser said. The acetate latches onto the lungs, creating fat deposits that inhibit breathing and cause inflammation.
The outbreak of illnesses has been indiscriminate, affecting teenagers as young as 13 as well as older adults up to 75.
In Texas, which began tracking vaping illness since August, 228 cases of severe lung disease have been identified in people who report vaping before developing symptoms, according to the latest figures published by the state health agency on Thursday. Southeast Texas, which includes Harris and Galveston counties, has reported 43 cases of vaping illness.
The median age for patients in Texas is 22, and about one-quarter of the people affected in Texas are minors. Roughly 90 percent of users interviewed by state health officials acknowledge vaping products containing THC.
No state or federal law requires the reporting of vaping-related illnesses. Any information about vaping cases comes from physicians who voluntarily report cases to local health districts, who then pass the information on to the state. The Texas Department of State Health Services investigates each case and then reports findings to the CDC.
Patients who present symptoms of vaping-related illness are often treated with steroids, and sometimes put on ventilators in severe cases. Keiser said it is “too early” to know whether steroid treatment is the best course of treatment because not enough evidence exists to prove its effectiveness.
The outbreak of illness among young people caught the attention of President Donald Trump last fall, prompting a flurry of new federal regulations overseeing vaping products. The Food and Drug Administration moved forward on Thursday with a ban on fruit- and mint-flavored products used in e-cigarettes and vaping products. The new rule, which does not apply to menthol and tobacco-flavored products, goes into effect in 30 days.
Texas has also taken steps to prevent teens from obtaining e-cigarettes. State lawmakers last year raised the age to buy all nicotine products to 21.
Keiser said these new regulations on vaping are a “good start,” and believes more rules will be issued as health officials learn more about the illnesses. He added he would advise parents to keep close tabs on their children that might be using vaping products.
“It’s really dangerous, people die from this,” Keiser said. “I think that’s the real message we have to get through. This is something that was just recognized six months ago, and look at the number of deaths we’ve had and how rapidly it occurs.”
The CDC recommends those who continue to use vaping products should monitor themselves to ensure they are not experiencing some of the symptoms associated with vaping and e-cigarette illness, including cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, fever, chills or weight loss.
Staff writers Michelle Iracheta and Todd Ackerman contributed reporting.