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.
Marijuana for asthma
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 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.
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."
Using medical marijuana in other ways might provide benefits for people with asthma.
Options could include:
- 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).
CBD and THC show promise for treating a number of conditions.
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.
Smoking marijuana can increase wheezing and coughing.
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.
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.
Talk to a doctor
It is essential to speak with the doctor before starting any additional treatments for a chronic disease, such as asthma.
Because of the potential risks associated with using medical marijuana, a doctor is the best person to advise whether it might be an effective treatment.
The bottom line
Animal studies have shown that CBD may be a promising ingredient for a future asthma treatment. However, far more research is necessary to confirm its safety and effectiveness.
It remains unclear whether marijuana in any form can help reduce the symptoms of asthma. Research suggests that some of the active ingredients may offer benefits, but that smoking whole marijuana may make it worse.
Anyone who wishes to use medical marijuana should speak to a doctor first, to ensure that the product they use it and the way they use it will be safe for them, especially if they have asthma.
Individuals with a respiratory condition should not smoke marijuana. Anyone who smokes marijuana and has concerns that they are developing respiratory problems should also speak to a doctor.
How can I use CBD or other forms of medical marijuana for asthma without smoking or vaping?
Smoking or vaping are likely to irritate and worsen asthma symptoms.
Studies on the anti-inflammatory effects of CBD have used the CBD oil. CBD capsules might be an option and may be available legally with a prescription in your state.
Talk to your healthcare provider.Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.