Why would anyone treat a respiratory condition by smoking? And cannabis is an anti-inflammatory agent, so do the benefits of cannabis outweigh the risks of smoking? If you’re an asthma sufferer, you’ve either never looked twice at smoking weed, or felt incredibly guilty after a few puffs.
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?
Potential benefits of marijuana for asthma
A growing body of research is focusing on marijuana’s effects on asthma and whether cannabis plants can offer some relief for the condition. The focus isn’t so much on smoking marijuana joints, but rather on taking cannabinoids instead.
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring substances in marijuana plants. They are sometimes used to treat chronic pain and neurological conditions, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis. This is due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
Since asthma is caused by a chronic inflammation of the lungs, researchers are trying to find out whether cannabinoids can have similar effects for this condition. Research is especially promising for people who have allergic asthma.
Cannabinoids may be available in the form of supplements. These substances may also be derived from smoking marijuana in nontraditional forms. A 2013 study in the journal Substance Abuse found that people who smoke marijuana using vaporizers gained more benefits from the plant with less lung-irritating smoke.
Still, there are some limits to these potential benefits. One study published in Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine contends that short-term medicinal uses of marijuana may not harm the lungs. This is compared to recreational or heavy smoking. However, it’s not clear just how much is safe or for exactly how long.
Most medical marijuana users use cannabis to relieve pain. And the large majority (76 percent) of asthma patients do experience chest pain during an asthma attack. This feeling is best described as a sharp stabbing feeling or deep aching sensation that can last for several hours after the attack.
Cannabis definitely has anti-inflammatory effects. This is good news for asthma sufferers.
Asthma is characterized by persistent low-grade inflammation of lung tissues. Even when the person is not having an attack.
This inflammation increases during an attack. As a result, cannabis is being studied as a viable alternative to other anti-inflammatory medications. The common ones include NSAIDs and steroids, both of which have detrimental side effects.
It’s believed that asthma is triggered by childhood bacterial or viral infections. Research on conventional antibiotic treatments for asthma, as well as cannabis’ potential for antibiotic effects, is emerging.
Can cannabis reduce mucus? The concept of cannabis as an expectorant is controversial and there is no research in this area. While it could be caused by irritants in the smoke or vapor, one of the active cannabinoids could be having a beneficial effect.
Cannabis might also reduce the spasms associated with an asthma attack. The high-CBD-concentrate Epidiolex was approved by the FDA as an anti-seizure medication.
So, it is not a big stretch to think that CBD formulations may have the same antispasmodic effect on the lungs. THC has also been shown to reduce muscle contractions in early animal and cell studies.
Perhaps the biggest possible benefit of cannabis is its bronchodilatory effects.
When a person has an asthma attack, the bronchioles constrict, causing the person to have limited airflow into the lungs. Several forms of cannabis have been shown to be bronchodilators.
Some doctors report that patients get the same asthma relief from cannabis that they do from their inhalers.
One reason might be that the cannabis compound THC does have the ability to dilate the lungs and respiratory passageways. And it also can suppress the characteristic coughing associated with asthma.
The other reason for patients experiencing relief is that high-CBD strains are powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Cannabis smoke does not act in the same way as tobacco smoke does. Rather than constricting the bronchial areas, cannabis dilates them to make it easier to get more air.
Inhalers contain corticosteroids which can create other health issues like anxiety, high blood pressure and other negative side effects.
In fact, in a 20-year study, people who infrequently smoked cannabis had no adverse lung function. They actually saw improvement without suffering further lung damage from the smoke.
Potential risks of marijuana for asthma
There’s no doubt that smoking in any form does negatively impact your health when done over the long term. Smoking causes throat irritation due to constant tissue inflammation. Over time, this can impair lung function. Asthma sufferers certainly don’t need any further lung impairment.
But recreational marijuana use and medical use are different.
Recreational users smoke more often and many marijuana smokers also use tobacco. Tobacco can worsen respiratory symptoms associated with smoking: cough, wheezing and mucus production.
Regular marijuana smoking has been shown to increase the risk of bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Yet it’s unclear whether smoking marijuana increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
Secondhand smoke, from tobacco or cannabis, can be harmful.
Kids in homes with cannabis smoke were almost twice as likely to have adverse health compared to homes without indoor smoke of any kind.
A few short-term studies have been done, but very few have studied the problem long-term. In this study, over 2500 people were followed for 13 years. Cannabis smoking was found to be a risk factor for bronchial asthma.
Because very little research has been done to date, the American Lung Association considers smoking marijuana as a health risk for people with asthma. Medicinal marijuana may help relieve asthma, but smoking is likely to make it worse.
Forms of marijuana
Asthma sufferers do not have to necessarily smoke cannabis to get relief.
Smoking is perhaps one of the most common ways to use marijuana. Still, this isn’t the only form of marijuana available.
Aside from traditional joints, some people prefer smoking marijuana with other tools such as bong. In theory, these can help reduce the amount of smoke you inhale. However, not enough studies have been done to determine whether such devices make smoking marijuana any safer.
Vaping marijuana by warming the plant results in less smoke being inhaled. CBD and THC, two compounds of marijuana, can be taken orally in food or capsules. Oils with CBD can be applied to the skin. The entire marijuana plant is often available in food products.
Nonsmoking forms of marijuana are also less likely to irritate your lungs. These include extracts that may be mixed with food and CBD oils that are available as supplements.
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