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What Does Smoking Weed Do To Your Lungs?

What does smoking cannabis for 20 years do to your lungs? These recent studies have an answer, and it might surprise you.

Feb 16, 2017 - Anna Wilcox

Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

Woman smoking weed with an elephant pipe

Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

There is no doubt that smoking is a bad habit that can be irritating to the respiratory tract and damaging to the skin. But, what does smoking weed do to your lungs? Surprisingly, the average cannabis consumer appears to have little risk of lung damage or cancer. Several large-scale, epidemiological studies have found that cannabis may be easier on the lungs than you might expect. Though, there are still concerns about heavy, protracted consumption.

What does weed do to your lungs?

If you’re wondering what weed does to your lungs, you may be pleasantly surprised. Thus far, high-quality research on cannabis and lung health has failed to show a significant association between smoking cannabis and lung problems.

In fact, some research suggests that inhaling the herb may even have a positive effect. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that smoking cannabis does not cause significant damage to the lungs. Tobacco, however, can be extremely damaging.

The study followed a cohort of 5115 men in four US cities. Not only did the study find no correlation between habitual cannabis consumers and lung disease or cancer, the researchers found that cannabis consumers had an interesting advantage.

Habitual cannabis consumers had a greater lung capacity. Though, admittedly, the improvement was small. The herb-lovers had a 1.6% advantage over non-consuming counterparts. That’s equivalent 50 milliliters, which is about one-seventh of a soda can.

Other studies have had similar results, though there are some things that consumers should know about the herb’s effect on the lungs. Here’s what cannabis does to the lungs in the short and long-term:

The short-term effects of smoking cannabis

In the short-term, smoking cannabis can be irritating to the back of the throat and the lungs. Cannabis smoke is hot and filled with hot, ashy plant particles and burning embers. Inhaling that stuff? Not fun for the delicate tissues facing the front lines.

Though experienced cannabis smokers become tolerant to the tickling sensation, cannabis can cause coughing, mucus, and inflammation in the short run. This irritation can cause bronchitis symptoms that continue for as long as you continue to smoke the herb.

Low-temperature vaporization is still hot, though this method is far superior for health than smoking. Vaporization heats the cannabis to the boiling point of the active compounds in cannabis resin. When resin begins to melt, the fat transforms from a solid to a gas and can be inhaled as a vapor. The PAX 3 kit is a great package to start with if you want to give vaping a shot.

This saves your throat and lungs from the constant irritation of cannabis. Though, large inhalations and quickly inhaled hot vapor can sometimes cause coughing and tickling.

For information on what to look for in a vaporizer, check out the article here.

Sometimes, consumers can feel mild chest pain after smoking cannabis. This often happens after a particularly large inhalation or after holding in the inhalation for an extended time. Though, chest pain can also be a sign of bunk product or smoking devices in need of cleaning. This often goes away in a fairly short amount of time.

It’s important to note that anyone with extreme chest pain, shortness of breath, or racing or irregular heartbeat should seek medical attention as soon as possible, regardless of whether or not you have consumed cannabis.

The long-term effects of smoking cannabis

By now, most people know that smoking is not the healthiest way to consume anything. However, there is some debate over what cannabis does to your lungs in the long-term.

Over the past few decades, medical researcher Dr. Donald Tashkin has devoted his time to studying the effects of smoked cannabis and tobacco.

When smoked long-term, cannabis causes visible and microscopic damage to large airways. This makes sense, as smoking invites burning embers into said airways.

However, Tashkin articulates that this damage “does not appear to lead to significant abnormalities in lung function.”

This damage can be mitigated by using safer consumption methods. This includes vaporization, edibles, and tinctures. However, even a water pipe or filtered one-hitter would be preferable to joints, blunts, or pipes.

One 2015 study from Emory University suggests that smoking up to one joint a day for up to twenty years is not associated with long-term health complications.

However, crossing the 20-joint-year threshold was correlated with decreased capacity to exhale. This is a marker of lung disease. The study was a cross-sectional analysis of data collected from the National Health Survey.

Interestingly, anecdotes from COPD and emphysema patients report successfully easing symptoms of their conditions with medical cannabis oil. Evidence suggests that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive in cannabis, is a potent bronchodilator.

Unfortunately, smoking can cause irritation, lessening the potential therapeutic effect.

What Does Smoking Weed Do To Your Lungs  Where Did The Huge Social Stigma On Cannabis Users Come From?
Photo by Zero Creatives/Getty Images

Does smoking weed cause lung cancer?

While it may come as a shock to some, there is no conclusive evidence that smoking cannabis causes lung cancer. This is a bit counter-intuitive, as tobacco smoke is the culprit behind 80 to 90% of lung cancer cases. However, when it comes to those glistening, crystal-buds, the evidence is not there.

In a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers in New Zealand crunched the data for 6 separate studies that included a grand total of 2,159 lung cancer patients and 2,985 healthy controls.

The surprising find? There was little correlation between the long-term use of cannabis and lung cancer.

Results from our pooled analyses provide little evidence for an increased risk of lung cancer among habitual or long-term cannabis smokers, although the possibility of potential adverse effect for heavy consumption cannot be excluded.

Dr. Tashkin’s work had similar findings. He hypothesizes that cannabis compounds may have a role to play in cancer prevention. He tells Time,

The THC in marijuana has well-defined anti-tumoral effects that have been shown to inhibit the growth of a variety of cancers in animal models and tissue culture systems, thus counteracting the potentially tumorigenic effects of the procarcinogens in marijuana smoke.

The results of these studies and the theories behind them are drastic departures from the “reefer madness” and “just say know” generations that have preceded the cannabis revolution.

While future research may clarify further risks of consuming cannabis, this data suggests that some of these long-rooted concerns lack sufficient evidence or support.

Regardless, all consumers, however, are highly encouraged to switch to vaporization or more lung-friendly smoking devices. Check out the Hydrology 9 Vaporizer at the Herb Shop.

How Does Vaping Weed Affect Your Lungs?

Due to decades of prohibition, there is surprisingly little research into the health impacts of cannabis use. And as a relatively new form of tobacco and cannabis consumption, there is also little research into the long-term health impacts of vaporizing. It should come as no surprise then that studies into the health impacts of vaporizing cannabis are even fewer and farther between.

But looking at recent research findings about tobacco vaporizers may give us some clues.

According to one review of the research commissioned for Public Health England, E-cigarettes—vaporizors made with the intention of replacing cigarettes—present a substantially lower amount of risk than smoking.

The problem is, not all experts are so sure. Another large analysis also published this year, for example, suggests that everyday-vapers could be doubling their chance of experiencing a heart attack compared to those who don’t vaporize or smoke cigarettes.

And when it comes to cannabis, things get even more complicated.

Last year, Rolling Stone conducted their own analysis of vapor pens, finding that most cartridges contained product derived from low-quality and even moldy cannabis.

And yet, not all those who vape weed use oil cartridges. Instead, many vaporize the actual cannabis flower itself. While there is also little research on this method, one 2015 study concludes that this type of cannabis consumption should be favored by those “who want to avoid pulmonary problems.”

In all, the available research on whether vaping weed affects your lungs is scarce at best and discouraging at worst. Vaping weed may have very few health impacts, or it may have more than anticipated.

But the things is: smoking cannabis, while found to have less of an impact on lung function than tobacco, isn’t necessarily good for your lungs either. So just like smoking cannabis—or any substance for that matter—those who vape weed should do so at their own risk.

How does weed affect your lungs versus cigarettes?

While cannabis research is limited in general due to prohibition, initial findings generally suggest that smoking cannabis poses less of a health risk than smoking tobacco.

In 2006, researchers in Ohio conducted a systematic review of 19 studies on the association between cannabis smoking and lung cancer and failed to find any connection between smoking cannabis and an elevated risk for lung cancer. To be clear, smoking anything isn’t great for the lungs, and cannabis smoke has been found to contain carcinogens, toxins, and irritants similar to tobacco smoke. But as another study from 2005 found that ” Components of cannabis smoke minimize some carcinogenic pathways whereas tobacco smoke enhances some.”

Still, more recent studies, like this one published last year, have also found that smoking cannabis may increase your risk of death from hypertension—a condition marked by abnormally high blood pressure. Other recent studies have also produced concerning results, such as one from the University of California, San Francisco, which found that rats exposed to second-hand cannabis smoke experienced impaired the membrane that lines the inner heart and blood vessels for three-times longer than those exposed to tobacco smoke. However, rats aren’t humans and ultimately more research is required to establish the true impacts of cannabis smoke on human health. So right now, while studies have shown that cannabis presents less of a risk to humans for lung cancer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential negative health impacts that result from smoking weed.

Again, smoking cannabis is something that should be done at your own risk. But compared to cigarettes, at least according to the National Insititute on Drug Abuse, only about 9 percent of cannabis users become addicted compared to about 32 percent of tobacco users, and 15 percent of alcohol users.

Can weed cause lung cancer?

Thus far, high-quality research on cannabis and lung health has failed to show a significant association between smoking cannabis and severe lung problems. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), for example, found that smoking cannabis does not cause significant damage to the lungs. Tobacco, however, can be extremely damaging.

The study followed a cohort of 5115 men in four US cities. Not only did the study find no correlation between habitual cannabis consumers and lung disease or cancer, the researchers found that cannabis consumers had an interesting advantage.

Habitual cannabis consumers had a greater lung capacity. Though, admittedly, the improvement was small. The herb-lovers had a 1.6% advantage over non-consuming counterparts. That’s equivalent to 50 milliliters, which is about one-seventh of a soda can.

Other studies have had similar results, though there are some things that consumers should know about the herb’s effect on the lungs.

In the short-term, smoking cannabis can be irritating to the back of the throat and the lungs. Cannabis smoke is hot and filled with hot, ashy plant particles and burning embers. Inhaling that stuff? Not fun for the delicate tissues facing the front lines.

Though experienced cannabis smokers become tolerant to the tickling sensation, cannabis can cause coughing, mucus, and inflammation in the short run. This irritation can cause bronchitis symptoms that continue for as long as you continue to smoke the herb.

Low-temperature vaporization is still hot, though this method is far superior for health than smoking. Vaporization heats the cannabis to the boiling point of the active compounds in cannabis resin. When resin begins to melt, the fat transforms from a solid to a gas and can be inhaled as a vapor. The PAX 3 kit is a great package to start with if you want to give vaping a shot.

This saves your throat and lungs from the constant irritation of cannabis. Though, large inhalations and quickly inhaled hot vapor can sometimes cause coughing and tickling.

For information on what to look for in a vaporizer, check out the article here.

Sometimes, consumers can feel mild chest pain after smoking cannabis. This often happens after a particularly large inhalation or after holding in the inhalation for an extended time. Though, chest pain can also be a sign of bunk product or smoking devices in need of cleaning. This often goes away in a fairly short amount of time.

It’s important to note that anyone with extreme chest pain, shortness of breath, or racing or irregular heartbeat should seek medical attention as soon as possible, regardless of whether or not you have consumed cannabis.

Weed and Emphysema

1 What Does Smoking Weed Do To Your Lungs  Where Did The Huge Social Stigma On Cannabis Users Come From?
Pulmonary Emphysema Axial Thoracic Scan Pulmonary Emphysema Is The Destruction Of Pulmonary Alveoles. It Is A Copd, Most Often Linked To Smoking Or Inhalation Of Toxic Substances. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

Emphysema is a respiratory disease that leads to a condition known as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease (COPD). While emphysema can contribute to COPD, emphysema occurs when tissues vital to lung structure and function begin to die. Part of the damage is caused by excessive inflammation, which causes scarring and continues to harm tissues over time.

Emphysema leads to shortness of breath, the inability to properly expel oxygen and carbon dioxide, a puffed chest, and extremely rapid breathing with minor physical effort. Emphysema is most often caused by tobacco smoke. Genetic factors are also thought to be involved, as only a minority of smokers develop emphysema. It’s also a common age-related condition.

Smoking marijuana can have an impact on the lungs. But, its result might be a little different than you’d think. When you breathe in marijuana smoke, you’re taking extremely hot vapor and irritating ash particles into your respiratory system.

Over time, these particles gather and accumulate into a kind of tar. In marijuana, this tar has not been linked to lung cancer like it has been with tobacco. Though, it’s definitely not an ideal substance to have in your lungs for a significant amount of time.

No significant lung damage is correlated with smoking moderate amounts of marijuana (about a joint a day). But, in heavy smokers that have consumed the herb over many years, negative lung impacts have been reported. Namely, chronic bronchitis-like symptoms, increased mucus production, and irritation. These symptoms go away if you stop smoking.

If you continue to smoke, over time, this constant bronchial irritation may lead to greater pulmonary problems. This is especially true if you also smoke tobacco. But, does marijuana automatically lead to emphysema? That’s a bit more controversial.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the answer is yes. But, other studies have found that the correlation between marijuana smoke and emphysema and COPD is a bit sketchy.

The “most comprehensive and authoritative review on the subject ever published” made headlines in 2013. A research team from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the respiratory complications associated with cannabis were “relatively small”.

The review examined research that was conducted over 30 years. After looking over all of the evidence, the team concluded that the commonly held belief that marijuana led to emphysema, COPD, and other lung diseases were unsubstantiated. Primary study author Donald Tashkin concludes:

“…the accumulated weight of evidence implies far lower risks for pulmonary complications of even regular heavy use of marijuana compared with the grave pulmonary consequences of tobacco.”

Another expert from McGill University, Dr. Mark Ware, writes:

“Cannabis smoking is not equivalent to tobacco smoking in terms of respiratory risk. … [C]annabis smoking does not seem to increase risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or airway cancers. In fact, there is even a suggestion that at low doses cannabis may be protective for both conditions.

In other words, the strong anti-inflammatory properties in marijuana may actually help treat emphysema. Of course, smoking the herb is not the best way to reap the benefits if you’re suffering from a respiratory ailment. Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), marijuana tea, or tinctures are effective, fast-acting ways to consume medical marijuana without having to inhale anything.

While no clinical trials testing medical marijuana’s efficacy in emphysema have been completed, many anecdotal stories exist about patients who have found relief with other related ailments such as asthma and COPD.

Weed and COPD

COPD stands for “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease“. As its name suggests, COPD is caused when airways in your lungs are obstructed or blocked in some way. This could be partly due to previous conditions like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or bronchiectasis.

Once these conditions have progressed to the point of COPD, there are surprisingly few medical treatments that provide adequate relief. Unfortunately, this means that the condition can actually be fatal as it gets progressively worse over time. Here are some of the main symptoms:

  • Excess mucus
  • Wheezing, coughing
  • Losing breath with limited activity
  • Fatigue
  • Continuous or frequent lung infections
  • Chest pain and tightness

Basically, COPD is a respiratory nightmare. It comes about in four distinct stages. Once the condition has progressed to the third or fourth stage, you may require an oxygen tank to ensure that you’re getting anywhere close to enough air. Otherwise, the constricted airways and an inability to complete a full breathing cycle may lead to a costly stay in the hospital.

The notion this smoking marijuana leads to COPD has mostly been disproven. But, if you have a serious respiratory condition, smoking won’t likely be your consumption method of choice. Vaporized cannabis, marijuana teas, tinctures, capsules, and other edibles are the best options for reducing symptoms and avoiding additional irritation caused by smoke.

While anecdotal success stories do exist around cannabis use and COPD, ultimately, more research is needed.

Long Term Effects of Smoking Weed

By now, most people know that smoking is not the healthiest way to consume anything. However, there is some debate over what cannabis does to your lungs in the long-term.

Over the past few decades, medical researcher Dr. Donald Tashkin has devoted his time to studying the effects of smoked cannabis and tobacco.

When smoked long-term, cannabis causes visible and microscopic damage to large airways. This makes sense, as smoking invites burning embers into said airways.

However, Tashkin articulates that this damage “does not appear to lead to significant abnormalities in lung function.”

This damage can be mitigated by using safer consumption methods. This includes vaporization, edibles, and tinctures. However, even a water pipe or filtered one-hitter would be preferable to joints, blunts, or pipes.

One 2015 study from Emory University suggests that smoking up to one joint a day for up to twenty years is not associated with long-term health complications.

However, crossing the 20-joint-year threshold was correlated with decreased capacity to exhale. This is a marker of lung disease. The study was a cross-sectional analysis of data collected from the National Health Survey.

Interestingly, anecdotes from COPD and emphysema patients report successfully easing symptoms of their conditions with medical cannabis oil. Evidence suggests that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive in cannabis, is a potent bronchodilator.

Unfortunately, smoking can cause irritation, lessening the potential therapeutic effect.

 


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