If you’re a heavy cannabis smoker, you probably don’t want to think about the effects it has on your lungs. Ignorance is bliss—until it comes back to bite you on the ass with a permanent case of chronic bronchitis.
Smoking cannabis traumatizes the lungs, damaging the tiny hair-like cilia in your bronchioles. It also impairs the microbe-killing function of immune cells in your lungs. Until you get the long-awaited coronavirus vaccine, you don’t want to be taking risks with your respiratory health.
Now for the good news.
You (Probably) Won’t Get Lung Cancer
About 10-15% of tobacco smokers get lung cancer, which causes 130,000+ deaths per year in the US, and 1.2 million deaths worldwide. But this doesn’t hold true for cannabis smokers.
Donald Tashkin, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, has published several papers on the subject. He concluded that light or moderate cannabis smoking is not significantly linked with lung cancer (Tashkin et al, 2013). (Heavy cannabis smoking is still with the jury.)
Smoking cannabis can convert your respiratory cells into a pre-cancerous state (Tashkin et al, 2002) and that’s because both tobacco smoke and cannabis smoke contain carcinogens as a result of combustion. However, there are key pharmacological differences between tobacco and cannabis, which probably explains the different incidence of lung cancer (Melamede, 2005).
Now for the bad news.
You Might Develop Chronic Bronchitis
Smoking cannabis subjects the lungs to microscopic trauma, leading to the development of chronic bronchitis in around 1 in 6 users.
Chronic bronchitis is inflammation and swelling of the bronchial tubes in the lungs. Excessive mucus builds up, making it harder for your lungs to pass oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you’ll develop worsening symptoms of:
- Mucus coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in your chest
- Frequent colds and flu
It’s a type of lung disease grouped under chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) that makes it hard to breathe—and it gets worse over time. It’s not just going to go away on its own.
There is no cure for chronic bronchitis except to stop smoking and let your lungs heal over time. Treatments to alleviate the symptoms include:
- Smoke less - to slow the disease progression
- Exercise more - to strengthen the muscles that help you breathe
- Bronchodilators - including steroids, to relax the airways
- Vaccinations - to prevent influenza, coronavirus, and pneumonia
- Antibiotics - to treat bacterial and viral lung infections
- Oxygen therapy - to improve blood oxygen levels
- Lung transplant - to outright replace your wrecked lungs
Vaping Reduces Your Risk
Clearly, there are significant differences between smoking tobacco and cannabis. Yet both still produce chronic health complications.
The solution offered by the CDC in both cases is to quit completely. That’s probably not what you want to hear, especially if you’re using cannabis for its scientifically-proven benefits.
So the CDC also recommends a middle-ground. If you’re a smoker, switch immediately from smoking to vaping, and do it as fast as you can without a long crossover period.
Why does the federal health agency recommend vaping as a part-way solution? Here are the tell-all stats.
Among smokers, there’s a 15% incidence of developing COPDs. Among vapers, it falls to 11%. And among non-smokers and non-vapers, it falls to 5.6%.
The driving factor is that vaping eliminates the need for combustion. Instead of burning your herb, cannabinoids are released by heating the residual water content. There’s no combustion, and far lower temperatures are involved, leading to far less lung damage.
But what about the 2019 outbreak of popcorn lung? Isn’t vaping bad for your lungs too?
Popcorn lung, or EVALI (e-cigarette vaping-associated lung injury), is a disease strongly linked to the addition of vitamin E acetate to THC-containing e-liquids. It’s a serious new illness that has caused 64 deaths in the US in the last couple of years.
Vitamin E sounds harmless enough—and it is, when ingested as food, supplements, or cosmetic creams applied to the skin. But inhaling it is bad news.
When this became evident, many manufacturers removed vitamin E acetate from their e-liquids. Since then, cases of EVALI have declined steadily. But there are some illicit brands still using it. The CDC recommends you avoid using THC-containing e-cigarette products from informal sources like friends and casual dealers.
So the take home message is this: if you’re vaping e-liquids, make sure they don’t contain any vitamin E acetate. You’ll want to find the most reliable source possible.
Better yet, no link has been found between EVALI and vaping dry herb, so switching from smoking to vaping dry cannabis means you don’t have to worry about popcorn lung.
If you’re a cannabis smoker and you want to look after your lungs, vaping demonstrates a better way to protect them—short of quitting altogether.
We’ve extensively reviewed and approved many portable vaporizers (starting from $69) and desktop vaporizers (starting from $154). We’ve also sorted those that are compatible with dry herb from those that are compatible with concentrates.
The next step? Read more articles about the best vaporizers and how they work, so you can make the switch today and give your lungs a much-needed break.