Can You Smoke Weed With Asthma?

Sophia Delphi July 15, 2022 - 7 min read
Fact Checked

Those who suffer from asthma certainly know they shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. Even so, the American Lung Association reports that while just 13% of non-asthmatic adults in America smoke tobacco, 17% of those with asthma still smoke.

It goes without saying that every one of those smokers with asthma has been told to quit by their doctor. Smoking makes breathing problems worse, and could very well cause a serious asthma attack.

But what about smoking weed?

A study recently published in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology provided some fascinating information. Nearly 20% of the participating asthma patients used cannabis, and more than half of those users smoked it. (Another third vaped their weed.) Also interesting: their doctors didn’t usually ask them about marijuana use when treating them for asthma.

That could mean that the doctors had no idea how prevalent weed use is. Or it could mean that there’s no real harm in smoking up if you have asthma. After all, cannabis does provide a number of medical benefits; could treating asthma be one of them?

As it turns out, the story is a complicated one – and the news isn’t encouraging for regular smokers of the green. Let’s discuss.

What Is Asthma?

Even those who don’t have asthma know that it’s a chronic condition that affects patients’ breathing. But the details are important.

Asthma induces inflammation in the bronchial tract, causing airways to narrow and increasing the production of mucus. That combination makes it difficult for the lungs to get enough air, leading to wheezing, coughing, and breathing difficulties. It also makes patients more susceptible to respiratory irritation, infections, and allergies; even small triggers like dust and pollen can cause big problems.

In more extreme cases the condition can cause chest pains or potentially-fatal asthma attacks which make it virtually impossible to breathe.

Many who have asthma only suffer minor or occasional symptoms, which are easily kept under control with the help of medications or inhales. Others have serious cases that impact their quality of life.

All asthma patients, though, are likely to experience problems if smoke is introduced into their bodies.

Smoke And The Respiratory Tract

Tobacco smoke is known to damage the small, hair-like structures in the respiratory tract which are responsible for removing foreign particles and mucus from the airways. Meanwhile, smoke triggers the production of more mucus in the lungs. The end result: all of that junk builds up in the respiratory system, irritating and clogging the airways.

That’s why smokers often experience breathing issues or develop a “smokers’ cough.” But it’s a much bigger problem for smokers with asthma. Their bronchial tracts are already narrower and more vulnerable to the irritation and inflammation that tobacco smoke causes. In short, the smoke makes their existing breathing problems even worse.

Does weed smoke cause the same issues?

Sadly, yes. Studies have shown that even though smoking cannabis often expands lung capacity, the smoke still damages cilia in the bronchial tract, irritates tissues in the throat and lungs, and induces additional mucus production. The heat from marijuana smoke can irritate those tissues as well. And heavy pot smokers are almost as likely to develop chronic bronchitis as cigarette smokers.

So it makes intuitive sense that people with asthma shouldn’t smoke weed. But what about the medicinal properties of cannabis? Can’t they help ease asthma?

That’s where the story gets more complicated.

Weed, Medical Benefits And Asthma

Image of a Hand Holding a Inhaler Focused

One of the benefits you often read about when cannabis is discussed is the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties. It’s believed that CBD is the cannabinoid most responsible for pot’s ability to help patients with inflammatory diseases, but researchers say that the so-called “entourage effect” – THC, other cannabinoids, and terpenes all working together with CBD – boost weed’s effectiveness.

Since asthma is an inflammatory disease, you might think that smoking weed would help ease the bronchial inflammation that causes patients’ wheezing and breathing difficulties. And you’d be half-right.

Cannabis can indeed help asthma sufferers with the foundational problem that causes asthma symptoms – but the smoke itself is likely to make those symptoms worse. Some light smokers with asthma claim that toking up helps them breathe better, but most asthmatics find that it hurts, not help. (It’s less likely to cause problems for those with one form of the condition, allergic asthma, which is only triggered by exposure to a specific allergen.)

There’s another medicinal benefit to consider. THC is known to be a vasodilator, meaning it causes blood vessels in the body to expand. That could lead you to think that pot might have the same effect on the respiratory system, causing airways to expand. As it turns out, that actually does happen.

Research has shown that that cannabis acts as a bronchodilator, relaxing muscles in the lungs and opening airways; the “rescue inhalers” like albuterol that are given to asthma patients are also bronchodilators, and they do exactly the same thing. Once again, however, there’s more to the story.

First of all, studies have found that as people smoke more often, the bronchodilation effect fades away. Regular and heavy weed users who have asthma would be unlikely to gain much relief from smoking. Second, the irritation caused by pot smoke, plus the additional phlegm production, can easily counteract any benefits that THC might provide.

Some medical experts say that occasional or light smokers could find that a few tokes might briefly ease their asthma symptoms – but smoking up is not an effective treatment for the condition.

Does that mean asthmatics have to give up weed? Not exactly.

Weed For Asthma Patients

The experts we’ve just mentioned believe that anyone with asthma should avoid smoking cannabis, although an occasional slipup at a party might not hurt them very much.

What’s important, though, is that the issue isn’t weed. It’s the way the weed is consumed.

Studies show that vaping is a better choice than smoking for asthma sufferers. The vapor contains fewer irritants than marijuana smoke, so it’s less likely to create additional problems in the bronchial tract. There’s one other advantage: heat can irritate respiratory tissues, and vapor is produced at cooler temperatures than smoke.

Even so, vapor can still be an irritant, so the smartest solution should be obvious. Edibles or tinctures (dropped under the tongue or into beverages) provide all of the health benefits that could help asthma patients, with none of the irritation created by smoke or vapor.

Edibles, of course, will take quite a while to take effect; they’re certainly not going to help an asthmatic having difficulty breathing. Tinctures hit quite quickly – but if you’re in the middle of an asthma attack, please reach for your rescue inhaler, and not the weed tincture.

Oral consumption is a “safe” way for those with asthma to consume weed but always remember: it should be used for its supplemental health benefits and to get high – not as a replacement for prescription asthma medications.

Can You Smoke Weed With Asthma? FAQ

Q: If you have asthma and only smoke weed once or twice a month, will that really affect your breathing?
A: It might, it might not. There are different types of asthma, some people’s condition is worse than others – and most importantly, everyone’s body reacts differently to weed smoke. Most experts think that occasional use wouldn’t be terribly harmful, but for some patients, it could be.

Q: I have a stoner friend with asthma, and she insists that smoking helps her breathe. How is that possible?
A: As we just emphasized, everyone’s body reacts differently to the smoke. There’s no question that, anecdotally, some people believe that smoking weed (or vaping) helps them deal with asthma. There’s also no question, though, that heavy smoking will do at least some long-term damage to their respiratory system; it could be that she’ll eventually find that it helps less and less over time.

Q: Is any type of weed use recommended for asthma patients?
A: Not by the medical community, although some “alternative” practitioners might feel differently because of the bronchodilation and anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis. But one interesting story sounds somewhat promising: Israeli researchers are working on a combination inhaler/vaporizer that uses cannabis extract.