Is smoking cannabis (marijuana) harmful to the lungs?
The simple answer is yes. Any kind of smoke, whether it is from cigarettes, marijuana or burning wood contains toxins and chemicals. Inhaling these substances can damage the lining of the large airways in the lungs, which can lead to respiratory issues.
According to the American Lung Association, many of the same toxins and chemicals are found in both marijuana and cigarette smoke. These harmful substances can have a detrimental impact on lung health and lead to pulmonary complications.
Interestingly, the health consequences of smoking tobacco vs. marijuana appear to vary. While there is strong evidence linking tobacco use to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and decreased lung function, there is little existing evidence to suggest that this is the case with light to moderate cannabis use.
That is not to say that smoking marijuana has no harmful effect on the lungs. It does damage the airways and hinders their ability to remove bacteria and debris out of the lungs. This can lead to infections and conditions like bronchitis. In fact, symptoms of bronchitis are commonly associated with habitual marijuana use and typically go away once use subsides.
Some studies also suggest a possible connection between smoking cannabis and developing a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) or bollus lung disease (abnormal airspace/thin walled air sacs), but results are inconclusive.
Marijuana can potentially affect more than just lung health. One study demonstrated a possible connection between cannabis use and developing head, neck, testicular and ovarian cancer. However, the authors do note limitations in the study design and advocate the need for further studies in order to obtain conclusive findings.
Although there is evidence to suggest that smoking marijuana can potentially harm the body, some scientists conclude that cannabis is a viable treatment option for people with certain medical conditions. There is also continued need to research marijuana’s effect on overall health when administered through other routes.
References: www.lung.org; American Thoracic Society.2013Jun;10(3):239-47; Alcohol35(2005):265-275; Intern Med J.2015Jun;45(6): 677-80.
Jackson is a Registered Respiratory Therapist/Certified Asthma Educator at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.