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By the Specialist Reporting Team's Alison Branley and national medical reporter Sophie Scott

Dakota Stephenson started vaping to help manage her anxiety. When 15-year-old Dakota Stephenson first started vaping with friends after school she never imagined it could have potentially deadly consequences.

Key points:

  • A teenager ended up in ICU with a condition doctors suspect was linked to regular vaping
  • She is now speaking publicly to warn others about the potential dangers of vapes
  • There are mounting concerns about vaping advertisements targeting teens through social media

That's exactly what happened when the Sydney teen ended up in intensive care last September, with what doctors believe was EVALI, a new lung illness emerging among vape users.

EVALI stands for E-cigarette or Vaping product use-Associated Lung Injury, a lung condition first reported in the United States.

At the peak of her condition, Dakota was partially ventilated on full-face oxygen in the intensive care unit at the Children's Hospital at Randwick for three days, almost drowning because of her fluid-filled lungs.

Dakota Stephenson lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask covering most of her face.

Dakota Stephenson was partially ventilated in the intensive care unit for three days.

Her mother, Natasha Stephenson, said whenever Dakota took the mask off she was visibly struggling for breath so badly doctors initially thought she had COVID-19.

"She needed a high-flow face mask, she couldn't breathe without it," she said.

"It was horrendous."

Dakota had been rushed to hospital by ambulance just days before when back pain and trouble urinating turned into vomiting, rigours, rapid heartbeat and a temperature as high as 39 degrees.

"She was really struggling to breathe. She got worse and worse," Ms Stephenson said.

Within hours Dakota became hypoxic with not enough air getting into her lungs and all signs pointed to pneumonia in both lungs.

It was then she revealed to her mother that she had been secretly vaping for the past seven months, up to three times a week.

It is thought Dakota Stephenson's is the only suspected case of EVALI reported in Australia to date.

Dakota told the ABC she first started vaping in early 2020 as a way to manage her emotions.

"They kind of calmed me down in a way, like it was soothing to my anxiety," she said.

"The colours were just intriguing — all of it."

Within weeks the high school student started graduating to cartridges that also contained nicotine.

'It looks so innocent'

Dakota was released from hospital after a week, but months later the previously fit teen still struggled with basic cardiovascular exercise.

Her mother said she narrowly escaped permanent injury with some nodules still showing up on lung scans months later.

Dakota said she was speaking out to warn other teenagers about what she believes are the potential risks of vaping.

"It looks so innocent but it could kill you. It's so scary," she said.

Ms Stephenson said she was shocked to learn her daughter had been secretly vaping, saying neither she nor Dakota's father smoked and were very anti-smoking.

"The hardest part was definitely when they said they had to take her to the Children's Hospital," she said.

"Words can't describe as a parent how it made me feel."

For complete story

For Further Resources on Vaping Check out Vaping Crisis Info Sheet