Cannabis Allergies: Real or Myth?

Many years ago, I discovered that I was predisposed to allergies. In my case, it was to my boss, my job and paying bills; I would imagine that quite a number of us are similarly afflicted. However, it may come as a surprise to find out that the scientific community has begun to research specific allergies to cannabis.

Why Now?

Allergic Reaction to Cannabis
Photo by: Pumatokoh/Shutterstock
It has been estimated that approximately 50 million Americans have been diagnosed with some form of an allergy. According to the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology, these individuals will face an allergic reaction at some point during their lifetime. The most common forms of allergies are to food, pollen, mold, and particular animals like cats and dogs.

Tales of marijuana allergies have been surfacing more and more with the decriminalization of the drug in recent years. Those who never knew that they had an aversion to marijuana are now discovering that they have a negative reaction to pot. People who use cannabis recreationally, medicinally, or who work as bud tenders, growers, packagers, and trimmers, for instance, have been affected.

With cannabis consumption on a significant upswing in the U.S., the correlation between the increase in the instances of allergic reactions and increased usage cannot be ignored. Stories of allergies to weed are beginning to appear more frequently, and the need for additional information and investigation into the issue is growing.

Marijuana Allergens

There are some quixotic characteristics relevant to marijuana and its production that might make it a source for allergies. For instance, just like other plants like ragweed, the pollen in cannabis can be highly irritating. Although usually produced by male plants, pollen can also be found in female plants with hermaphroditic tendencies. In other words, they exhibit both male and female features. The preparation of cannabis sativa contributes even more to this perplexing question.

As cannabis consumers, we know that there are several ways to use the drug. We smoke it, eat it, drink, it vape it, and even smear it on as a lotion. On top of this, the female flower, whose job it is to prevent pollination, serves to amplify the psychoactive effects of heightening the THC content. This means that pot has become increasingly more potent over the years. Therefore, this might serve as a contributing factor as a possible allergen.

Allergies are defined as a unique overreaction to protect the respiratory system from anything that might attack it. Our bodies contain certain antibodies that work to ward off invaders, yet this can also produce symptoms similar to an allergic response. The pollen released by trees, weeds, and grass constitute the most common allergens. Mold, on the other hand, is a spore that can be found growing in grass, dead logs and dried out leaves and other moist conditions.

Because both of these are connected to cannabis, scientists have begun to focus more exclusively on cannabis sativa, the species we all know to be marijuana. They have discovered that the plant may cause a list of symptoms, including asthma, rhinitis, and conjunctivitis. However, it should be pointed out that real cannabis allergies must be distinguished from a reaction to a substance that can be found in the plant. In other words, the plant can become moldy if kept inappropriately, leading to a reaction from those with mold allergies.

It has been established that the presence of fungal contamination in pot samples has the capacity to affect those with damaged immune systems. For example, allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis has been linked to the fungal contamination in individual weed supplies. It has produced sneezing, itching, throat irritation, wheezing, nasal congestion, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Those who handle the plant personally, like workers in the industry, have experienced hives, swelling in their limbs, pneumonia, and problems with speaking.

Love and Weed Are in the Air

Marijuana Fields Pollen in Air
Photo by: stdesign/Shutterstock
Airborne substances can also trigger an allergic reaction. So those who live in areas where a vast amount of marijuana is produced might be impacted by the aerobiology of pollen. One study conducted in Nebraska found that more than 60 percent of patients with rhino conjunctivitis or asthma showed a positive skin prick analysis to pollen. The specific symptoms included runny nose, red eye, post-nasal drip, sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchy/runny eyes.

Additionally, about 75 percent of patients in a random group of medical cannabis users reported respiratory symptoms during pollination season. For those working in the industry (budtenders and growers for instance), there was a higher presence of skin irritations, respiratory issues, and nasal conditions. This held true for both indoor and outdoor workers in the cannabis industry.

How to Deal with Allergies

So what do you do it you think you have a cannabis allergy? It’s not too difficult: you should make an appointment with an allergy specialist. The testing is largely skin-based. A skin prick test can identify your sensitivity to certain allergens. If you find that you are allergic to pot, your body does in fact create an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). Checking for unique variants in the blood can reveal if there is the possibility of an allergy. Even if there is a positive test, it does not necessarily mean that you will experience a reaction. It’s pretty simple and quick. Typically within about 15 minutes, a red, itchy bump will appear on your skin, which indicates that you have an allergy. The larger the red surface, the more sensitive you are to the allergen.

There are treatments for the allergy, however, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Some people have been treated with a nasal inhaler or nasal spray. Others have been advised to minimize their exposure and treat their symptoms with antihistamines, intranasal steroids, and nasal decongestants. Some are treated with inhaled corticosteroids. The EpiPen has also been utilized in some cases. Some cases have also been treated with immunotherapy.

Studies such as the nonspecific LPT (ns-LPT) have been helpful in identifying several of the possible causes. LPTs (Lipid Transfer Proteins) facilitate the transfer of lipids and other fatty acids that spread across cells, revealing several causes of food allergies, and can therefore provide information about cannabis allergies.

Nothing to Sneeze At

Even though it is very uncommon, allergies linked to cannabis have been reported with more frequency in the past few years. Reactions as harsh as anaphylaxis connected to cannabis usage have been revealed and contribute to a higher sensitivity to cannabis consumption, occupational exposure, plant cross reactivity and pollinosis. But don’t panic. We should expect allergic symptoms to cannabis to increase as the drug becomes more widely used by the general public.

These allergies can be treated much the same way that other allergies are. However, because the research is still relatively new, the testing has not been standardized and cannot be validated. Therefore, much more research is required to determine the applicability in the testing procedures. This could lead to methods for more accurately diagnosing symptoms and creating a standard treatment to provide more options for patients.

It goes without saying that the still-illicit nature of cannabis use in America poses problems for medical reporting and the diagnosis of allergic reactions to marijuana. Additional research and federal funding, although unlikely at this point, would aid significantly in fighting weed allergies. Wide-scale biases against marijuana continue to exist and appear to prevent much-needed scientific study. In the meantime, those who suffer from cannabis allergies should take comfort in the fact that there are at least some relief available.