We have heard of people with common food allergies — like an allergy to nuts, shellfish, wheat, eggs, soy, or cow’s milk. Allergies to insect stings, dust mites, pollens, animal dander, latex, makeup, and certain medications are also very common. And then there are also some weird or ridiculous allergies, like allergies to sunlight, wood, semen, and even electromagnetic fields (no cellphone for this guy, yikes!) and jewelry.
But have you heard of an allergy to cannabis?
It is not really unusual. A growing number of people have come out and revealed that they experience allergic reactions to pot. There is no reason to panic, though. People reporting of cannabis allergies should really be expected to increase as consumption of the drug becomes more mainstream.
This is also why first-time cannabis users should have all the information they need on cannabis allergies and the signs they should look out for.
What are allergies and how do they happen?
Allergies, including allergic rhinitis, takes place when your body reacts to substances in the environment that are otherwise harmless. These substances are called allergens and they are found in food, pollens, dust mites, molds, insects, and certain medications.
A person’s genetic tendency to develop allergic reactions is called atopy. When an atopic person is exposed to allergens, that person can develop an immune reaction that could lead to allergic inflammation. This allergic reaction can manifest in:
– the eyes, resulting in conjunctivitis
– the nose, resulting in allergic rhinitis
– the skin, resulting in hives or eczema
– the lungs, resulting in asthma
When allergens enter the body, they trigger an antibody response. These antibodies attach themselves to mast cells. And these mast cells release a chemical called histamine, which brings out irritating and uncomfortable symptoms, including itching, rashes, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, congestion, coughing, wheezing, ear congestion, inflammation, and even asthma.
The symptoms manifested depend on the allergen and where it enters in your body. For example, if you breathed in the allergens, the histamine released causes the lining of your nose to produce extra mucus and become inflamed and swollen. This causes your nose to itch and run, and you may experience violent sneezing. Your eyes may also water and you may get sore throat.
Meanwhile, allergens that are eaten, like dairy products, eggs, seafood, and peanuts, may cause eczema, asthma, upset stomach, and colic.
Are allergies life-threatening?
Allergic reactions are mostly mild to moderate and they do not cause major problems.
There are, however, a few people who may experience a severe allergic reaction that would require immediate life-saving medication. This severe reaction is called anaphylaxis and allergens that could cause it include insects, medications, and food.
Prevention and treatment options for allergies
Reducing the occurrence of allergies relies on identifying the cause of allergic reactions and avoiding exposure to these allergens.
In the event of an allergic attack, these medications are typically used to treat symptoms:
Antihistamines. These medications block the release of histamine from mast cells and therefore reduce symptoms. There are non-sedating antihistamine tablets, as well as antihistamine nasal and eye sprays.
Intranasal cortiocosteroid nasal sprays. INCS are effective in the treatment of moderate to severe allergic rhinitis.
Combination therapies (antihistamine + INCS). These are used to treat moderate to severe allergic rhinitis and to offer the benefits of both INCS and antihistamine.
Medicated eye drops. These eye drops can help in treating red, itchy eyes.
Adrenaline (epinephrine). Epinephrine is used as a first aid emergency treatment in the event of severe and life-threatening allergic reactions or anaphylaxis. This medication is usually administered via an adrenaline autoinjector.
There are also non-medicated treatment options for allergies, like saline sprays for allergic rhinitis and sinusitis. There’s also allergen immunotherapy, which tries to change the immune system’s response to allergens by administrating allergen extracts regularly and at gradually increasing amounts via sublingual tablets, sprays, drops, or injections.
Allergies: How common are they?
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergic diseases and asthma are common for all age groups and are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness among Americans. In fact, the ACAAI noted that more than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from allergies every year.
Allergy and cannabis
In a previous CannabizDaily post, we have talked about how cannabis can help with allergies. We noted that cannabinoids in cannabis have anti-inflammatory properties, so it could potentially help with treatment.
However, cannabis itself can also cause allergies. Many people have reported experiencing allergic reactions to using weed, even if it is for medicinal purposes.
According to a study conducted by researchers in Belgium, cannabis plant can cause several allergic symptoms when inhaled, smoked, or chewed. These symptoms include skin rashes, allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis or pink eye, and asthmatic symptoms. The research, entitled “Emerging allergens: Cannabis,” focused on the cannabis sativa species, which is known colloquially as marijuana.
True cannabis allergy vs allergy to cannabis contaminants
It goes without saying that a true cannabis allergy pertains to allergic reactions to a specific substance that is contained within or is inherent to the plant itself.
But what if your allergic reactions are caused by molds in cannabis? How do you differentiate legitimate cannabis allergy from the allergic reactions to substances found in the plant — like molds and fungi?
It is already an established fact that cannabis with fungal contamination can put users at risk. And this is well-documented. In fact, according to one case study, a man who habitually smoked weed had suffered allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis due to fungal contamination in his supply. A sample of his weed was tested and it yielded heavy mixed growths of Aspergillus, which are mold species that can cause diseases and allergies in people with a weakened immune system.
So one way to differentiate is to have a sample of your cannabis supply tested.
Once you experience adverse reactions to cannabis, regardless of your method of consumption, take a sample of the batch you are using to a laboratory and have it tested. If traces of contaminants are found — be they molds, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals — then there is a chance that you are allergic to these contaminants and not to cannabis itself.
It would only make sense that you get your next batch of cannabis products from a reputable and licensed source. Legitimate cannabis companies put a premium on the purity and safety of their products, so they take their cannabis for third-party lab testing. And they have certificates to show for it.
If you respond well to this batch of clean and safe cannabis products, then it means it was the contaminants that triggered your allergic reaction.
If you don’t and you still experience symptoms, then it means you are allergic to cannabis.
Scientists have been working to identify specific allergens for cannabis. Many studies have shown that the most common of these allergens is pollen.
Individuals who show sensitivity to cannabis pollen are usually also sensitive to pollen in other plants. One article has noted that inhalation of cannabis pollen can cause symptoms of allergic rhinitis, asthma, and conjunctivitis. Exposure to pollen can also cause nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy throat, coughing, and wheezing.
People who live in places where cannabis plants are grown may be prone to allergic reactions to the pollen. Take for example Omaha, in Nebraska, where marijuana plants reportedly grow wildly and commercially. According to a study that looked into cannabis sensitization, 61 percent of 127 patients in the area with symptoms of asthma and allergic rhino conjunctivitis had a reaction to a cannabis pollen skin prick test.
Rhino conjunctivitis has one or several of these symptoms: runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, post-nasal drop, red eyes, itchy nose, and itchy eyes.
What’s more, 73 percent of randomly selected patients in a cannabis sensitive subgroup had reported experiencing respiratory symptoms during the pollination season for cannabis.
Cannabis also has allergens other than pollen.
There are recorded cases of cannabis consumption and exposure to cannabis smoke causing skin irritations, nasal congestion, sneezing, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, itchy throat, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
In one particular case, cannabis consumption was also speculated to be a contributing factor in eosinophilic pneumonia where symptoms started manifesting after exposure to recreational cannabis.
Skin contact during the handling of cannabis plants has been associated with hives or urticaria, itching, and swelling. Meanwhile, hemp seed ingestion has been reported to result in anaphylaxis, hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and difficulty speaking.
Seasonal and occupational exposure to cannabis has also been reported to trigger allergic asthma.
A 1971 study suggested that cannabinoids can also be allergens based on the case-patients’ positive skin prick test reactions. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was specifically suggested in the case of a forensic lab worker who handled sinsemilla variants of cannabis. Sinsemilla has a high THC concentration.
A more recent study identified a non-specific Lipid Transfer Proteins (LTP) relevant to cannabis called Can s 3. This LTP was later tagged as a major allergen in a further investigation conducted by Larramendi and Ebo. LTPs are in charge of transferring fatty acids and lipids across cell membranes and are often involved in food-based allergies.
Yet another study identified potential allergens in cannabis including a protein called RuBisCO, as well as a 23-kDa oxygen-evolving enhancer protein 2.
There are also other identified but less consistently demonstrated allergens, including adenosine triphosphate synthase, glyceralderhyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase, luminal binding protein, and phosphoglycerate kinase.
Treatment of cannabis allergies
Allergic reactions that are attributed to cannabis have been associated with pollens, cannabis consumption, occupational exposure to cannabis, and potential plant cross-reactivity.
Cannabis allergies can be treated in pretty much the same way as other allergies. However, the lack of standardization when it comes to testing limits the validation and widespread applicability of diagnostic testing.
There is still a need for more research in order to more accurately define allergens in cannabis, to develop a standardized extract, to clarify treatment options for patients, and to establish specific diagnostic protocols.