Thursday May 3, 2018
By Erin Hiatt
Cannabis allergies are on the rise, and it’s estimated that 36.5 million have some kind of allergic reaction to the plant. With more and more Americans gaining access to legal marijuana, that number will only go up. More than 50 million Americans suffer some kind of allergy, whether it’s the seasonal hay fever variety, or perennial allergic rhinitis. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., and cost more than $18 billion dollars.
Allergic responses occur when your body treats a substance like pollen, grass, or dust, like an enemy invader. If you have a particular allergy, the body may react to the offending substance -- in this case cannabis – as if it’s harmful. In response, the immune system kicks in to fight the foreign substance. Most people who suffer allergies will experience sneezing, itching of the nose, eyes, and mouth, asthma, runny nose and watery eyes. Allergies can also cause atopic dermatitis, a skin reaction that may cause hives, red, itchy, and flaky skin.
Though dealing with allergies can be draining and uncomfortable, for some they are quite literally deadly serious. Allergic anaphylaxis can cause a loss of consciousness, nausea and vomiting, a drop in blood pressure, severe shortness of breath and death.
Who’s At Risk for Cannabis Allergies?
Even if you’re not a regular or even occasional cannabis consumer, exposure is very common, especially in areas with outdoor cannabis grows like California and Colorado. Female plants disseminate pollen through the air, so basically anyone who breathes could have an allergic reaction due to inhalation.
The risk of reaction is certainly higher for those who directly inhale cannabis by smoking or vaping. Secondhand cannabis smoke may also cause a reaction in particularly sensitive populations.
The plant itself can trigger an allergic skin reaction as well. There’s also the challenge of mildew and its more pernicious cousin, mold, which grow on practically anything and are not picky about the climate around them.
Mold allergy symptoms are very similar to those of seasonal allergies, but have the added kick of potentially exacerbating asthma symptoms. When dry mold is disturbed, it can become airborne. Some airborne mold has been shown to contain a toxic substance called mycotoxins and can induce the expected allergy symptoms but may also cause pneumonia, especially dangerous for susceptible populations like the elderly.
Ultimately, anyone who touches the cannabis plant is vulnerable – especially workers in the industry.
If You Already Have Allergies
Those who are allergic to other things may be more likely to develop a cannabis allergy. Other contributing factors are having a family history of asthma or other allergic conditions, like food allergies.
Some foods that have similar allergen properties to the cannabis plant may cause an allergy cross-reaction. If almonds, apples, eggplant, grapefruit, peaches, tomatoes or chestnuts cause an allergic reaction, it’s probably best to limit or at least be on the lookout for a potential reaction to cannabis.
THC’s Effect on Allergies
Many budtenders are reporting that customers are looking to buy strains with a high percentage of THC. This is not necessarily a good thing for people with cannabis allergies. Potent cannabis with a high percentage of THC has been suspected to be a stronger allergen than strains with lower concentrations of the cannabinoid. Therefore, the more THC content a strain has, the higher the allergen risk.
Cannabis Allergies for Cannabis Lovers
In the Annals of Asthma, Allergies, and Immunology, a Colorado allergist wrote about a 30-year old male who worked in a dispensary, grew his own plants at home and was a frequent cannabis smoker. His allergic symptoms of runny nose, wheezing, dry coughs, and itchy and rashy hands only increased the more he worked with the plant, though his symptoms did lessen at home.
The author wrote, “Although cannabis appears to be a mild allergen, increasing workplace exposure in conjunction with increased recreational use by consumers will likely result in health-related effects.” Should allergy symptoms increase the more you use or are around cannabis you could have increased sensitivity that isn’t likely to decrease with less exposure.
What Should I Do If I’m Allergic to Cannabis?
At this time, there is really no standard allergy test to detect cannabis allergens in particular. If you suspect you may be allergic, a specialist could prepare a liquid of flowers, buds, and leaves, then conduct a standard skin prick test. However, not many allergists are on the forefront of that testing, though allergic reactions to mold, cross-reactionary foods or pollen could strongly indicate a cannabis allergy.
Some dangerous allergens – like peanuts or bee stings – must be avoided completely by those who have those allergies. And though it is extremely unlikely, cannabis could cause a similar response. But if symptoms lie somewhere between itchy to wheezy, some common sense approaches could help ease an allergic reaction.
If smoking cannabis turns into a sneezy, eye-watering event, edibles could be a logical solution. When handling the plant causes a skin reaction or other symptoms like coughing and runny nose, covering exposed parts of the body and wearing gloves and a face mask will prevent inhaling any mildew or mold. Using an over-the-counter allergy medication may also help ease symptoms, and an inhaler could help with breathing issues.
The only way to avoid allergic reactions of any kind is to avoid the allergen completely. But with a little knowledge, some awareness, and trial and error, cannabis can still be an enjoyable experience, even for those with a cannabis allergy.
Do you or someone you know suffer from cannabis allergies? Do you have any tips for combatting them? Share your comments below!