Should you reach for the joint or a Tylenol? Here’s what you need to know about smoking weed and being sick
Photography by Georgia Love for Herb
When it is wintertime, colds and flu viruses are running rampant around your work, school, and household. When you get sick and have to stay home, it is sometimes nice to take advantage of those days off with a little cannabis. You probably know that if you have a chest cold, smoking irritates your symptoms, making the process of getting high painful. So, is it a good idea to smoke weed when sick? Well, maybe. The herb can either help you find comfort or transform your cold into the most miserable experience you’ve had in a while.
There’s a reason why cuddling up under a warm blanket feels so good after a little cannabis. Finding some goosebumps on your arms or feeling a little chilly after partaking are very common physical side effects of the psychoactive herb. Others include a dry mouth, red eyes, and an increased heart rate. However, is cannabis actively lowering your body temperature, or is something else at play? Here’s the scoop on why cannabis can make you feel cold and possibly lower a fever.
Cannabis has a history as a fever-reducer Yet, modern science hasn’t done a lot to back up this traditional remedy. In fact, the ways that cannabis affects your body temperature is downright wonky. As it turns out, chemicals the herb may actually lower your body temperature. This phenomenon is called THC-induced hypothermia. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive in the cannabis plant. As it turns out, THC may tap into a key brain region that helps control temperature regulation. This brain region is called the hypothalamus. As a result, cannabis might make you a little chilly thanks to its ability to change chemical reactions within the brain.
While this may seem useful during a fever, it might actually make you feel more uncomfortable. Having a fever is like setting your optimal body temperature up a couple of degrees. During a fever, your body tries to maintain a constant high temperature in order to fight off bacteria and other pathogens. Many pathogens cannot survive in high temperatures, so the human body increases its overall temperature to fight infection. This boost in body temperature doesn’t mean that you feel hot, however. Instead, you may feel cold when you otherwise would not as your body tries to maintain a steady high temperature.
Cannabis may interfere with this system, however. Scientists may still be exploring the ways in which the herb affects body temperature, but thus far, the early evidence suggests that it might trigger the hypothalamus into thinking that the body is excessively cold. Located deep in the center of the brain, the hypothalamus is what is ultimately responsible for maintaining a fever. The regulatory center triggers reactions throughout the body that helps retain heat. As a result, you may start shivering and your muscles may feel more rigid. Overall, this extra chilliness might be uncomfortable when you’re sick and trying to retain body heat. Though, research has yet to pinpoint whether or not this chilling effect can be helpful for actually reducing your fever and easing fever symptoms.
There is more to the cannabis and fever question than meets the eye. Messing with the thermostat in your brain isn’t the only way cannabis affects body temperature. This means that there is potentially more than one way that cannabis plant can make you feel cool. Believe it or not, cannabis has a similar effect to wasabi, mustard, hot chili peppers when it comes to temperature. Hot and spicy foods can help cool you down. As soon as the tongue (or any part of your skin, for that matter) senses the heat, it ignites a cascade of chemical reactions that tell the body that it needs to cool down.
This reaction is thought to be mediated by a particular cell receptor called the TRPA-1 receptor. This receptor has many functions in the body, but it is essential in mediating pain, inflammation, and temperature regulation. As the theory goes, when you consume something spicy or hot, this receptor is activated and it causes a cool-down and pain-fighting reaction.
Research suggests that cannabis may also affect body temperature via the TRPA-1 receptor. Though, experiments are in early and theoretical stages thus far. For example, early research suggests that rodents which were given capsaicin, the molecule responsible for the heat in hot peppers, experienced a notable reduction in body temperature. Active compounds in cannabis engage the same pathway, indicating that activation of these receptor sites may contribute to the cooling sensations of the herb.
Yet, not all research has described this cooling potential. One review of the scientific literature suggests that in low doses, cannabinoids like those found in cannabis might cause hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is the opposite of hypothermia. The former causes a temporary increase in body temperature while the latter makes you feel cold. In high doses the molecules have the opposite effect. On a hot summer night, consuming a little cannabis might just help you cool off. Yet, to take full advantage of the cooling properties of cannabis, bong rips, and dabs may be more likely to provide relief in the heat. If the above rodent study is any indication, just a puff or two might keep you sweating.
Smoking cannabis when you’re sick may not be the most helpful thing in the world. Not necessarily because of the herb itself, but because of the process of smoking. When you smoke a joint, blunt, spliff, pipe, or even a bong, the toxins present in burning plant material can aggravate the lungs. This may lead to more inflammation, irritation, mucus, and exaggerated symptoms of bronchitis.
However, the relationship between cannabis and common illness is more complex than you might think. The plant may both ease symptoms or can potentially make things worse at the same time. The way you consume the herb contributes to how the plant will affect your body. Yet, there may be another reason to keep it light with cannabis when you’re sick with the cold or flu.
Early research suggests that cannabis may suppress the immune system, which is why those with autoimmune conditions tend to respond well to the herb. If you are trying to recover from a cold or the flu, this immune suppression is likely less than desirable. There may be a way to use cannabis to manage symptoms like pain, inflammation, congestion, upset stomach, and gastrointestinal distress. However, based on the preclinical evidence thus far, it does not seem like cannabis will help your cold or flu end more quickly.
This assumption comes with a grain of salt, however. While studies have shown that the main psychoactive in cannabis, THC, has a suppressant effect on the immune function, there is a lot of information scientists still do not know about the way compounds in the plant interact with the human body. It may be possible that cannabis can help the immune system function more efficiently in some select instances, while at other times the herb may suppress the immune system a little too much. Right now, there simply isn’t enough evidence to make firm conclusions about how cannabis compounds affect the human body.
If you have an upper respiratory illness, smoking is probably not your best bet. You are already coughing up a lung just trying to breathe, and the hot smoke that you are trying to inhale is not going to help. If you must inhale, you could try using a vaporizer with warm water. The warm water will make your hits less “shocking” to your lungs.
Vaporization is the ideal way to inhale when you have a chest cold. The ash and burning embers in marijuana smoke will irritate your lungs. Unlike a bong, pipe, or joint, however, vaporizers heat cannabis products at low temperatures without combusting the material. The result is an ash-free product that is likely less irritating than taking fire to your herb. Try the Crafty Vape next time you come down with something.
Smoking cannabis when your nose is stuffed up is a toss up. Anytime you are ill, it’s always best to stay away from burning material. If you have a vaporizer, it’s a much safer bet. For some people, however, inhaling the herb may help clear the sinuses and reduce inflammation in the area. Though, eating some hot and spicy peppers or some wasabi sauce may also be just as helpful.
If you’re suffering from intense nausea, a low-potency or CBD-based cannabis product may help. Smoking, however, may risk irritating any potential chest congestion or symptoms of coughing. Further, being high when you’re really sick can be quite miserable. When you’re feeling sick and a little unlike yourself, adding a psychoactive experience on top of that can result in some truly trippy times. Yet, some consumers may find that the sedation, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, and pain-relieving effects of the herb immensely helpful for coping with symptoms of the flu.
If you’re considering taking the herb, teas, vaporization, tinctures, and low-dose edibles are ideal. Some consumers may have luck with higher-dose CBD products, but there is no way to say for sure. Virtually no research exists on the topic, though cannabis medicines were historically used to treat malaria, tetanus, rabies, gonorrhea, and cholera. Does that mean that the plant is a worthwhile flu treatment? Not exactly. But, hey. There’s no research that says that it will make things worse either.
Thanks to the potential immune suppressant effect of cannabis, it’s probably best to give your body a chance to fight your infection before lighting up. In some instances, high doses of THC may make you more acutely aware of the pressure in your head or even exaggerate your headache and make you even more uncomfortable. Without actual research on the topic, however, there’s no way of knowing for sure, however, whether or not drinking a soothing CBD tea or trying a low-potency tincture or edible may make some of the inflammation and pressure in your face disappear. So, the next time you enjoy a little herb while sick, think of it as an experiment.
Smoking weed with a sore throat is a definite no-no. Smoke is harsh enough on its own, causing inflammation and irritation to the tissues of your mouth and airways. If you’re searching for a remedy for your sore throat, a CBD lozenge or some cannabis tea and honey may be a better bet. If you don’t have any cannabis tea laying around, you can simply recycle your old stems by brewing them in some water with a small dash of coconut oil. Adding the nearly tasteless fat helps extract more of the active compounds found on the plant stems. Of course, you can also make tea with trim or ground flower as well. Though, you’ll want to follow a better recipe to reap the full effects.
Smoking when you’re sick may not help you get much better. But, there still may be ways to use cannabis to ease symptoms and make it easier to go about your day. Most cold medicines on the market do not do much to help you recover from a cold. Instead, they work by masking symptoms so that you can catch up on sleep and maintain your daily activities. Many people use cannabis in a similar way, though there might be a few ways to make sure you’re getting the most benefit out of your bud. Here are a few tricks to consider:
When you’re already feeling cloudy, clogged up, and out of it, you might want to avoid strong cannabis products. In high doses, THC can sometimes cause a headache or make you feel a little out of sorts. When combined with a bad head cold, some may find that adding a lot of cannabis to the mix might actually make them feel worse and even a little disoriented.
It might be helpful to try a less potent strain or product first, to get a sense of whether or not the product is going to improve symptoms. Strains high in cannabidiol (CBD), which do not cause a psychoactive high, may be a good choice. Some CBD-infused honey, a lolly, or cannabis teas may be some of the best options when you’re sick. For best result, breathe in the steam from a cannabis tea while drinking. The steam may help break up congestion.
While smoking can cause inflammation and mucus, early research has discovered that THC is a strong bronchodilator. That means that the cannabinoid opens up the airways in the lungs. This fact is why some companies are looking into clinical research on cannabis therapies for asthma patients. This same action might also make THC useful in breaking up chest congestion and inflammation, though there is no research that suggests this is true.
One thing is certain, though. To reap the bronchodilatory benefits of THC, you’ll want to stick to a vaporizer or a mouth spray. Perhaps the best vaporizer to use is a clean vape with a glass water attachment. Using a little boiled or filtered warm water that has cooled substantially can make a steamy vapor that might feel soothing to inhale. This is a similar effect to sitting in a hot shower or steam room.
Since there is a possibility that cannabis has a suppressant effect on the immune system, sticking with a healthy diet and taking some vitamins may be a good way to go about self-care when you’re feeling under the weather. In general, drinking lots of water and other fluids is recommended when you’re sick. Foods high in zinc, vitamin C, and beta-glucan are also useful for overcoming a bad cold. Foods that contain these nutrients include citrus fruits, leafy greens, smoothies, broths, and nutrient-dense meats are great foods to consider. Mushrooms, oats, barley, and seaweed are dietary sources of beta-glucan, which is thought to boost immune function.
While using cannabis with a bad head cold or the flu may not be ideal for making a rapid recovery from your illness, it may certainly help you fall asleep faster. If the plant helps you successfully get more sleep, those extra Zzzs may very well aid in your recovery. Being able to lay down and nap may also make being sick a little more bearable.
The bottom line? Using marijuana when you are sick will affect each of us differently. Marijuana isn’t going to make you get better any faster, but it will certainly make the healing process easier to deal with. If you are going to partake, however, smoking is not recommended. The smoke can actually make your sickness worse, so try to use some of the alternatives.