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Can marijuana help treat asthma?

Changes in marijuana laws and the increased use of medicinal marijuana have led to questions about what conditions it can treat. Many people wonder whether marijuana can affect or treat asthma.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that occurs when the airways in the chest get narrower or become inflamed. Symptoms of asthma include coughing, difficulty breathing, and wheezing.

There is no cure for asthma, so treatment involves managing the symptoms and preventing complications.

There is a growing interest in the use of medical marijuana to treat a range of health conditions, including asthma.

But people who use marijuana, or cannabis usually do so through smoking. What does this mean for a person with asthma? Is there any other way to use marijuana, and can it help reduce the symptoms of asthma?

Read on to find out more.

Share on Pinterest Marijuana contains anti-inflammatory properties.

Studies have suggested that some of the components in marijuana may benefit people with asthma.

Medical marijuana can refer to the whole plant, or it can be an active ingredient of marijuana taken from the plant and turned into a medication.

It is important to note the difference between recreational and medicinal uses of marijuana.

For recreational purposes, many people smoke marijuana. But smoking can have a negative impact on lung health, especially for people with asthma.

Smoking

Smoking cannabis can cause the same symptoms as smoking tobacco, even when people smoke cannabis alone, possibly because smoke from cannabis and tobacco have similar properties.

These effects can be particularly hazardous for people with asthma.

Vaping

In vaporizing, or “vaping,” the user inhales the vapor of the active ingredients but not the smoke. The vaporizer may contain a liquid cannabis extract.

There is little research on the use of vaporizers for marijuana use. However, a 2013 study found that using a vaporizer was likely to be less hazardous to the lungs than smoking.

Researchers in a 2015 review caution, however, “Preliminary findings do not support the idea that vaporization is an improvement over smoking.”

Non-smoking options

Using medical marijuana in other ways might provide benefits for people with asthma.

  • consuming marijuana or its extracts in foods or drinking a tea
  • consuming the active ingredients in capsules
  • applying topical preparations onto the skin

Marijuana contains a range of active substances, known as cannabinoids. These include CBD and various types of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

THC is a psychoactive ingredient, but CBD is not. CBD does not have mind-altering properties.

CBD, THC, and some other substances in marijuana appear to have various health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.

Some people use marijuana to treat chronic conditions that cause pain and inflammation, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Some countries have approved the use of medical marijuana for this purpose, but the United States has not.

Researchers have looked into whether people with other inflammatory conditions, such as asthma, can use marijuana safely.

Findings of an animal study published in 2015 suggested that CBD might benefit people with asthma, due to its anti-inflammatory action.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not yet approved the use of medical marijuana for asthma.

At this point, there is not enough evidence to ensure it can be safe and effective for asthma. However, it is possible that the anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects might reduce symptoms.

However, in June 2018, the FDA did approve the use of a purified form of cannabidiol (CBD) for the first time.

The FDA approved a drug called Epidiolex to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy that do not respond to other medications.

Research has found that THC can help suppress the immune system. This might help reduce symptoms that stem from autoimmune diseases, such as asthma. Since asthma is an allergy reaction, the immune system is over-reacting to something in the environment that is triggering the attack.

Studies have also suggested that one type of THC may have bronchodilatory properties, which means it could help make breathing easier for people with asthma.

However, it is often difficult to study the effect of marijuana and its components. This is because most people who use marijuana use the whole plant, and they smoke it regularly. This can make it hard to assess any positive effects on the lungs.

Using marijuana to treat asthma can involve some risks.

Studies have found that smoking marijuana can trigger an asthma attack. It may also increase the risk of both asthma and allergies.

Smoking marijuana during an asthma attack could further irritate the lungs, worsen coughing, and increase health risks.

As with any drug or medication, marijuana can have some side effects.

  • changes in perception and mood
  • reduced coordination
  • difficulty thinking, reasoning, and remembering

Using marijuana without a doctor’s supervision increases the risk of these problems.

For people who begin smoking marijuana early, there appears to be a higher risk of asthma later in life. Another review discourages the use of marijuana for allergic asthma because of its potential to cause respiratory symptoms.

Complications of smoking

Smoking any substance, including marijuana, can irritate the lung tissue. Lung irritants can trigger or worsen asthma attacks in some people.

The immediate effects of smoking marijuana, tobacco, or a combination can include:

  • increased sputum
  • a chronic cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • a hoarse voice
  • tightness in the chest

Anyone with asthma should avoid smoking any substance, including marijuana.

The long-term effects of smoking marijuana regularly include a higher risk of developing bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A review of studies published in Nature linked bullous lung disease with marijuana use.

Bullae are large air sacs in the lungs that can put pressure on the lungs and chest, making it more difficult to breathe. They can also rupture or pop, which can trigger a lung to collapse. A collapsed lung can be life-threatening if it does not receive immediate treatment.

It is unclear whether smoking marijuana increases the risk of lung cancer. However, since marijuana smoke contains many cancer-causing chemicals similar to those in tobacco smoke, it is likely to contribute to the risk.

The American Lung Association warn the public that smoking marijuana can be a health risk. This may include second-hand marijuana smoking, too.

As one study concludes, “There is unequivocal evidence that habitual or regular marijuana smoking is not harmless … recreational use is not the same as medicinal use.”

Medicinal marijuana may help relieve asthma, but smoking is likely to make it worse.

Legal issues and regulation

The laws regarding marijuana and medical marijuana are continually developing. Check whether any form of marijuana is legal locally before obtaining or using it.

Some forms of medical marijuana, such as CBD oil may be legal, but there may be restrictions, or a person may need a prescription.

CBD oil and other marijuana-based products that do not have FDA approval are not regulated. This makes it difficult to know exactly what is in the product. The FDA do not approve marijuana for asthma.

Asthma is a condition that causes chronic inflammation in the airways. Research about the anti-inflammatory effects of marijuana is ongoing and often positive. In this article, we look at whether marijuana can be used to help reduce asthma symptoms. We also look at the possible risks, as smoking can worsen symptoms.

Cannabis (Marijuana) Use and Its Impact On Asthma and Allergies

Allergy & Asthma Network and Joanna Zeiger, PhD, hosted a Twitter chat on June 11 on cannabis (marijuana) use and its impact on people with asthma, exercise-induced bronchospasm, allergies, eczema and urticaria. Dr. Zeiger answered questions during the Twitter chat that are summarized here for you.

Dr. Zeiger is also CEO and researcher with Canna Research Group, an organization seeking to better understand how people are using cannabis to manage medical conditions.Dr. Zeiger is also a former U.S. professional triathlete who was the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Champion and competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where she placed 4th in triathlon. She is the author of “The Champion Mindset – An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.”

You are invited to take the Allergy & Asthma Network Pain, Exercise and Cannabis Experience (PEACE) survey on cannabis use. You must be 18 years of age or older. You can take the survey whether or not you have used cannabis, used cannabis in the past, or currently use cannabis.

Questions and answers about cannabis (marijuana) use for asthma, allergies, eczema and exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB)

What are the natural compounds found in cannabis?

  • THC – tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is the compound in cannabis that is psychoactive and gives the “high” sensation. It’s consumed by smoking and in oils, edibles, tinctures and capsules.
  • CBD – cannabidiol. CBD is the cannabinoid that is associated with anti-inflammatory and immune modulating properties, and is not psychoactive, so it does not typically provide a “high” sensation. It’s sold as gels, gummies, oils, supplements and extracts.

What is cannabis (marijuana) research telling us about the potential benefits and risks of using cannabis for people with asthma and allergies?

Joanna Zeiger: Asthma is a disease with many causes, meaning not all patients with asthma react the same way to various triggers. For some people with asthma, cannabis is an immediate bronchodilator – it relaxes the airways which can help breathing.

The drawbacks are that inhaled cannabis is an irritant and can cause increased cough, sputum and wheezing. So, risks far outweigh benefits and asthma specialists do not recommend inhaled or vaped cannabis for the treatment of asthma.

Cannabis can be used to decrease anxiety, but it can also be a drawback if it decreases the appropriate concern for managing asthma – especially if that concern causes patients to stop taking prescribed medicines that control their asthma.

The take-home message is cannabis should not be inhaled or vaped by people with asthma. Other preparations (e.g., oils, topicals, edibles) may not have any specific beneficial effects on asthma or other allergic diseases.

Are you suggesting asthma patients smoke cannabis (marijuana)?

Joanna Zeiger: We DO NOT recommend that people with asthma should smoke or vape cannabis. It is not a safe way to consume cannabis with this condition.

What do people need to know about starting cannabis (marijuana) as a medical treatment for asthma or allergies?

Joanna Zeiger: I always tell people the first thing to do is figure out what it is you want to treat. For those with chronic illnesses, it would be optimal to have a discussion with a physician knowledgeable in cannabis.

Seek medical advice when starting any type of treatment. What are the symptoms you want to address? Is it nausea? Insomnia? Pain? The type of condition you are treating will help dictate which type of cannabis you need and how you consume it.

Once you start using cannabis, keep a log of any change in your symptoms to determine whether cannabis is providing effective relief or possibly adverse effects.

If a specific cannabis product doesn’t work, it may not be a failure of cannabis – it may not be the right product for you and your condition. Again, consulting with a physician knowledgeable about cannabis is important.

Can you explain what you mean when you say it may not be the right cannabis (marijuana) product?

Joanna Zeiger:There are all sorts of cannabis products out there. Some have lots of CBD and no THC, some have all THC and no CBD, and there are variations in between. Each person responds differently to different ratios of CBD and THC.

It takes some time to determine what works best. Plus, there is the route of administration. Some people like oils, while others do better with edibles. We do not recommend inhalation for people with asthma.

So there is some experimentation involved.

What are the different ways people can consume cannabis (marijuana) as a medical treatment?

Joanna Zeiger: The most common: smoking, vaping, tinctures, oils, topicals and edibles. How you take cannabis can have a different impact. The amount of time until you feel effects of the cannabis can also differ depending on how you administer cannabis.

Smoking and vaping are not recommended for lung health due to reported adverse effects. Inhaling does lead to very fast onset of action, which may be beneficial for people who have severe acute pain but should be avoided in those with asthma.

Edibles take much longer to work – up to 45-70 minutes – but the lasting effects are much longer than inhalation and can last for hours. This is ideal to aid sleep.

Topicals work differently altogether and their effectiveness depends on the type of injury or pain you are trying to treat. That’s why defining your goal for cannabis use will help dictate your treatment options.

How safe is using cannabis (marijuana) as a medical treatment?

Joanna Zeiger: Inhaling cannabis is least safe for people with asthma. As noted previously, inhaling cannabis by smoking or vaping should be avoided by those with asthma.

For anyone using cannabis, particularly those with a chronic illness, safety is paramount and comes first. Determine with your doctor the safest method of using cannabis and the lowest possible dose that provides optimal relief.

Use cannabis responsibly. If you feel too high, sleep it off or wait it out. Do not overindulge. Even though cannabis can have medical value, it can also have adverse effects.

Should patients tell their doctor if they use cannabis oil or consume/smoke marijuana?

Joanna Zeiger: Yes, patients should not be afraid to discuss cannabis with their doctors. Patients want to be sure there won’t be any adverse effects of using cannabis with any other medications. And doctors need to know the benefits and adverse effects.

Do people have allergic reactions to cannabis (marijuana)?

Joanna Zeiger: Yes, people can have allergic reactions to cannabis. We do not yet know the exact numbers, but it can be an occupational hazard for those who work directly with the plant.

What are some benefits of cannabis (marijuana)?

Joanna Zeiger: We published several articles from a survey we did on athletes – the Athlete PEACE Survey study. (The AAN PEACE study is in part based on the Atlete study.) The athletes reported several benefits to cannabis use.

The athletes reported decreased pain, improved sleep, less anxiety, fewer muscle spasms and improved well-being. These benefits have also been reported in many other studies in medical patients.

We know that cannabis is helpful for people with seizure disorders and can alleviate nausea and lack of appetite in cancer patients. There is evidence cannabis can help inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatic conditions.

Additionally, cannabis seems to help people with post-traumatic stress disease (PTSD) and other mental health conditions.

What are some adverse effects of cannabis (marijuana)?

Joanna Zeiger: Cannabis can cause psychosis in some people, as well as cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, a situation where vaping of certain illicit products of cannabis causes severe abdominal pain and vomiting.

Other adverse effects of cannabis include cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, sleepiness, poor concentration and coordination.

The mantra in the world of cannabis is to “start low and go slow.” This means start with low doses and build up use slowly until you reach a beneficial amount or potential adverse effects. This approach is similar to starting most medications.

For eczema, is there a difference in using CBD vs. products that contain THC? Do they work on different immune issues? What sort of products do you recommend?

Joanna Zeiger: There just isn’t a lot known right now about how cannabis affects eczema. That is why we are doing the Allergy & Asthma Network PEACE survey – to learn more!

It would be beneficial to speak to a doctor who specializes in cannabis to help direct you to products that could potentially help you without causing adverse effects.

Do you have asthma? And do you consume cannabis (marijuana)?

Joanna Zeiger: Yes, I have asthma and allergies. I also have chronic pain for which I use cannabis (edibles mainly, sometimes topicals). It has been helpful for sleep. It reduces pain and muscle spasms and decreases nausea.

What is the goal of the Allergy & Asthma Network PEACE Study?

Joanna Zeiger: We want to understand how people with asthma and allergies consume cannabis, whether it helps or hinders their allergic conditions and if cannabis affects their usual medication use to treat asthma and allergies.

We also aim to understand knowledge and attitudes of cannabis in people with asthma and allergies. Different patient populations likely use cannabis differently, but to know for sure we must look at it systematically with the Allergy & Asthma Network PEACE Survey.

Also, we need to start learning more about #cannabis use and its impact on asthma, allergies, eczema and urticaria so we can educate patients and doctors on proper cannabis use.

How can people take the Allergy & Asthma Network PEACE Survey?

Joanna Zeiger: The AAN PEACE Survey is very comprehensive. It may take 10-12 minutes of your time, but it is important so that we learn more to help people with asthma and allergies. We thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey.

For confidentiality, all of the survey answers are anonymous – we are not collecting names, emails or any other identifying information.

A Q&A with Joanna Zeiger, PhD on cannabis use and the benefits and risks for people with asthma and allergies.