Marijuana and Asthma

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on August 28, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney

Overview

Asthma is a chronic condition of the lungs that’s caused by inflammation of your airways. As a result, your airways constrict. This leads to wheezing and breathing difficulties.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, more than 25 million Americans have asthma. Many of them are searching for natural and alternative treatment methods. This includes marijuana.

Marijuana (cannabis) is being legalized in many states. Some states have legalized it for medical purposes only. Others have legalized both medical and recreational use of this drug. You may be wondering whether marijuana could be a potential treatment for asthma. Smoking marijuana can make breathing problems worse, whereas taking other forms of the plant may potentially benefit people with 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 the cannabinoids instead. These are naturally-occurring substances in marijuana plants.

Cannabinoids 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. Research is especially promising for people who have allergic asthma.

These substances may be available in supplemental form. Cannabinoids may also be derived from smoking marijuana in nontraditional forms. A 2013 study in the journal Substance Abuse found that people who smoke marijuana via 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.

Potential risks of marijuana for asthma

Despite any possible benefits, marijuana also poses enormous risks if you have asthma. This is particularly the case if you smoke it. Smoking any substance can increase inflammation in your lungs. This makes your asthma symptoms worse.

Smoking marijuana may even increase your risk for an asthma attack. In severe cases, you may need to be hospitalized for an asthma attack. This helps to prevent life-threatening complications.

When you smoke marijuana, there are components called bullae that can build up in your lungs. These are large air sacs that can eventually disrupt your breathing. According to the American Thoracic Society, you’re at an increased risk of developing bullae from smoking marijuana if you’re under the age of 45.

Over time, bullae can grow and cause shortness of breath. What’s even more dangerous is the development of pneumothorax. This is a life-threatening condition that occurs when bullae rupture in the lungs.

In the short term, smoking marijuana can cause:

  • frequent coughing
  • lung infections
  • phlegm
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing

Forms of marijuana

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 bongs and vaporizers. 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.

Nonsmoking forms of marijuana are also less likely to irritate your lungs. These include extracts that may be mixed with food, or cannabidiol (CBD) oils that are available as supplements.

Other treatments for asthma

Numerous conventional treatment options are available for people with asthma. Aside from quick-relief medications, such as inhalers, your doctor may recommend more long-term control drugs. These help stop asthma symptoms before they become problematic by decreasing inflammation. Examples include:

  • nebulizers
  • inhaled corticosteroids
  • leukotriene tablets

If you’re looking for more “natural” forms of asthma treatment, talk to your doctor about the following options:

  • breathing exercises
  • meditation
  • massage
  • acupuncture

The takeaway

When it comes to using marijuana for asthma, there’s an ongoing debate about the benefits versus the risks. The negative effects of tobacco smoke — especially for people with lung diseases such as asthma — have been well-established. As marijuana becomes legalized in many areas, only then can more research be done.

However, the bottom line is that smoking marijuana can indeed be harmful if you have asthma. Overall, smoking marijuana is unsafe for people with lung disease. Talk to your doctor about all the options for asthma treatment, and ask whether other forms of marijuana could benefit your particular case.

CMS Id: 130935