COVID-19 has become a global concern, and we all want to know everything we should be doing to increase our odds of staying healthy and safe. By now, most of us know we need to be washing our hands for at least 20 seconds and social distancing, but what about daily habits? What about smoking cannabis? We spoke to specialists in the scientific and medical community to find out.
What’s the harm in smoking?
Dr. Steffanie Strathdee is an infectious disease epidemiologist who has spent her career working on harm reduction in people with drug addictions. Though she does not claim to be an expert in cannabis nor pulmonary medicine, she does believe that at this point in time, smoking is not advisable.
“Right now, we are facing a pandemic where SARS-CoV-2 attacks lung cells, preferentially in the lower respiratory tract. In my view, better to be safe than sorry, so I’d advise anyone who uses marijuana to switch to edibles, especially if they have underlying health conditions like respiratory problems (asthma, COPD), heart problems (hypertension, diabetes), or immune deficiencies,” she said.
The concern is with cilia—parts of cells in our lungs and respiratory tract that assist in keeping airways clear of dirt, mucus, and other irritants. “Younger people may get milder illnesses but I think it stands to reason that you still increase the chance of a serious complication, [like a] secondary bacterial infection, if you get infected with SARS-CoV-2 and you have burned all your cilia,” said Dr. Strathdee.
Lungs with fewer cilia will be less capable of moving viral particles, bacteria, and mucus up and out of the lungs. It’s clear to see why this function is especially important during a time when a severe respiratory virus is circulating.
Protect your lungs’ cilia
To learn more, we consulted Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander, a pulmonary critical care physician who has studied e-cigarettes for over seven years. Using basic, translational, and clinical research, Dr. Crotty Alexander began studying the effects of cannabis products on lung and immune function because a high number of people who use nicotine vaporizers also smoke or vaporize THC or CBD.
When asked about cilia and the effects cannabis smoking might have on their function, Dr. Crotty Alexander said, “It has been demonstrated that smoking marijuana damages airway epithelium, increases mucus production, and causes loss of ciliated epithelial cells.”
She continued, saying, “If cilia are absent or not functional, the mucus will pool in the airways, giving SARS-CoV-2 a chance to make contact with and infect pulmonary epithelial cells.”
When asked if cannabis smoke affects cilia to the same extent as tobacco smoke, Dr. Crotty Alexander said there simply isn’t enough convincing data either way to know at this time. However, she noted that susceptibility to the viral pathogen SARS-CoV-2 could increase with any additional stress on the pulmonary system.
“Because this is a novel pathogen, we are working with very little hard data, but it is widely thought that smoke inhalation in general is a risk factor for more severe COVID-19 infection,” she said. “Marijuana smoking has been shown to be tied to increased cough, sputum production, shortness of breath and wheeze, which are just basic signs that the airways and lungs are irritated by the breathing in of marijuana smoke, leading to increased mucus production and cough.”
Consider giving your lungs a break right now
When asked whether cannabis consumers should also avoid vaping, Dr. Crotty Alexander replied, “It would be wise for all of us to try to keep our lungs as healthy as possible, in anticipation of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 and potentially developing COVID-19. People at high risk—those over the age of 60, [and those with] underlying lung disease, diabetes, or heart disease—should take care with their health, and treat their lungs with kindness as they may need them to work a lot harder to keep them alive in the very near future.”
Dr. Crotty Alexander said that people at high risk of getting SARS-CoV-2 should pay the most attention, but so should everyone as well. “Healthy people under the age of 30 just went through an epidemic where they were the most at risk—EVALI,” she said, referencing the lung injury associated with e-cigarettes and vape products. “So they too should listen up, as their lungs were not designed to inhale anything except air molecules.”
No matter age or underlying condition, everyone should consider giving their lungs a break. “Inhalation of particulate matter—whether due to cigarettes, marijuana, coal burning, stove burning, or pollution—has always led to diminished lung function and increased susceptibility to lung infections.”
These are unprecedented times, and while we change many things about our habits in order to curb the spread of this virus, it may pay to also give up smoking—even cannabis.
With plenty of alternative products, such as edibles, tinctures, patches, and topicals available today, cannabis can still be a part of your life in a way that doesn’t add any unnecessary irritation to the lungs.
Stay well, stay safe. We will get through this together, from a distance.