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.
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.
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.