Allergies are no fun and they impact millions of people around the world. There are some common allergens out there like grass, dust, and peanuts – but what if you find yourself allergic to something less common, something you enjoy or that may be therapeutic for you… what if you were allergic to cannabis?
As unfortunate as that sounds, yes, you can be allergic to cannabis. With weed becoming more mainstream throughout the world, reports of allergic reactions are also on the rise. Budtenders and growers, recreational users, and medical patients have all experienced allergy symptoms after using cannabis. Does it have to do with the pollen? Is it just certain strains? And what can you do if you’re affected?
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What are Allergies?
Allergies are simply the bodies immune reaction to certain foreign substances. When you have an allergic reaction to something, that’s your immune system making antibodies to fight a particular allergen that is has categorized as harmful, although that may not be necessarily be the case. Like peanuts, which trace amounts of can cause severe reactions in some people, but peanuts are not normally a dangerous substance.
Allergic reactions vary from person to person and can range in severity from mild irritation all the way to life threatening reactions, typically anaphylaxis which includes symptoms such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, and trouble breathing.
Most allergies don’t get cured, per se, but they do change over time and can disappear in some cases. Many people develop allergies as infants or children and eventually grow out of them. For example, it’s very common for babies to have lactose allergies and leave them behind by the time the turn one year old.
Identifying Cannabis Allergens
When it comes to plant allergies, a person is allergic to certain compounds in or on the plant, not the entire plant itself. These can range from chemicals within the plant, like cannabinoids, to external factors that might not always be prevalent, like mold.
Pollen – a powder released by trees, grasses, weeds, and other plants – is the world’s most common allergen. Grains of cannabis pollen grains are very light and buoyant, allowing them to drift for many miles which increases their potential as a common irritant. Pollen is usually only produced by male cannabis plants or females that express hermaphroditic male flowers, although there are some exceptions to this.
Then there’s cannabis mold. Mold is a type of spore that grows on plants in less-than-ideal conditions. It commonly grows on fallen leaves, old rooting logs, and some types of grasses. Most mold grows in a moist atmosphere, but some types of dry-weather mold species do exist.
Now let’s talk about cannabinoids. As unfortunate as it would be, yes, there are reports of cannabinoids themselves being the cause of allergic reactions. A study published in 1971 labeled cannabinoids as allergens based on positive skin prick test reactions in trial patients. There was also a case where THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) was named as the allergen in the case of a forensic laboratory worker handling sinsemilla variants of cannabis sativa, who developed symptoms on the skin.
What are the Symptoms of a Cannabis Allergy?
This is where things get interesting. Because cannabis can cause certain uncomfortable side effects (dry eyes and mouth, excessive coughing, feeling flushed, etc.), some people mistake these for a cannabis allergy. I can’t emphasize enough that there is a real difference between the aforementioned symptoms and a true allergic reaction.
And it’s worth mentioning again that there is a difference between an allergy to mold that may have developed on poorly cured/stored plants, and an allergy to actual plant compounds. Inhalation of cannabis pollen has been documented to cause a number of symptoms included allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis, asthma, nasal congestion, pharyngeal pruritus (itchy throat), coughing, wheezing, and dyspnea (difficulty breathing).
What many people may find unexpected is that quite a few cases of allergic skin irritations, hives or urticarial to be specific) have been linked to cannabis, both from consumption and the handling of plants.
Cannabis as also been suggested as a contributing factor in one case of eosinophilic pneumonia in which the symptoms began shortly after recreational use. However, since only one case of this has been documented, the jury is still out on whether it was caused by cannabis or purely circumstantial.
Getting a Diagnosis
First things first, if you think you have an allergy of any sort and you want to investigate further, you will need to book an appointment with a licensed allergist. A diagnosis can sometimes be made by going over your symptoms, but in most cases, a skin prick test will be the course of action. (IgE).
An allergen-specific IgE blood test is done to check whether a person is allergic to a particular substance. Because IgE antibodies are unique to each allergen, checking for specific variants in the blood can help determine if an allergy is present. The tests are not invasive and tend to produce quick results.
Now, just because someone has a positive skin prick test to a particular allergen that doesn’t necessarily mean they will experience negative reactions. Therefore, healthcare practitioners must compare the skin test results with the time and place of a person’s symptoms to see if they match.
If the skin prick test comes back negative but an allergy is still suspected, an intradermal test may be administered, which just goes a bit deeper into the skin. After either one of these tests, the area is observed for about 15 minutes to see if there is a reaction. Naturally, the more intense the local reaction is, the greater the sensitivity to the allergen.
The concept of cannabis allergies is relatively new and the minimal research that we do have indicates that it’s not a very common allergy, so that’s good news! If you think you may have a cannabis allergy, speak to your healthcare practitioner to find a solution. As far as treatment options go, unfortunately there aren’t many.
Some people may use an antihistamine like Benadryl before indulging, others might have to change the products they use. With cannabis pollen being the root cause of many allergic episodes, people have had luck switching to concentrates. Just make sure to be cautious and patient as you try different methods to curb your allergic symptoms.