Is it the flu or vaping-related illness? Why doctors say it could be difficult to tell apart

Flu Season and Vaping

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Health professionals are still looking into the products and chemicals that could be causing the vaping-related illness outbreak across the nation. But doctors are concerned the next few months could be challenging as the flu season kicks into high gear.

The latest number of confirmed cases of vaping-related illnesses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now more than 1,600, and the number of confirmed fatalities has risen to 34. The issue is many people may be sick from vaping and not even know it because it could be disguised as something much more common, like the flu.

Doctors say the flu and other respiratory viruses can in many ways look strikingly similar to a case of vaping-related illness. Symptoms include shortness of breath, night sweats, low oxygen levels and hazy spots on a lung X-ray.

Dr. Ron Reynolds with Beach Family and Urgent Care says as we approach the upcoming flu season, the similarities in symptoms could be challenging in diagnosing a patient with the flu or a vaping-related illness. Both also cause respiratory problems and can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Health Professionals say people who vape could be at risk for several respiratory illnesses and are more likely to be diagnosed with the flu because their lungs and immune system become weakened.

"When you do a flu test, it’s not 100 percent positive or negative, so you’re always going to have some false positives and false negatives. So with the flu, especially once you get into the season, then your index of suspicion basically is such that if someone is coming in with flu-like symptoms, they may very well be diagnosed as just the flu and not really evolve what’s going on with a vaping standpoint. So it’s going to be complicated as we get further into the season,” said Reynolds.

Doctors say the major difference is that the flu has more upper respiratory symptoms like a sore throat, runny nose, and stuffiness. Medical professionals are concerned as the flu season sets in it can pose as a double threat to those who vape because people who damaged their lungs by vaping may be at risk for respiratory viruses.

“Basically how you’re going to be needing to approach this - obviously you’re going to be treating them for the flu, but also have to be very aware of the symptoms they have, especially second to a respiratory nature and if they’re not responding to normal treatments,” said Reynolds.

As of Oct. 15, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has reported 30 cases of confirmed or probable vaping-related illness in the state. Reynolds says the overlap between the flu and the mysterious vaping-related illness is another good reason to get a flu shot. And remember, it takes about two weeks for the flu shot to kick in.

Health officials are also encouraging people to not use any vaping products until the cause of the illness is better understood. They say if a person continues and gets sick, it’s important to get to a clinic quickly, be honest about using vape products and request a flu test.

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