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Are marijuana users at increased risk of serious complications if they get the new coronavirus?
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, many are now aware that the elderly and those with certain underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. The same goes for cigarette smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But does this increased risk also apply to those who smoke marijuana, a substance that has become increasingly legal in the states of the country in recent years?
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Fox News spoke to Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of health of the American Lung Association, to find out. Read on to see her answers below.
The following information has been changed for clarity and length:
Fox News: How does smoking marijuana affect your lungs or airways?
Dr. Rizzo: What happens to your airways when you smoke cannabis is that it causes a certain degree of inflammation, very similar to bronchitis, [and] very similar to the type of inflammation that smoking can cause.
Fox News: Does this put users at greater risk for complications from COVID-19?
Rizzo: Yes, because you now have inflammation of the airways, and if you get SARS-CoV-2 infection as well, your risk of complications may increase. The CDC includes smokers and vapers at higher risk for COVID-19 complications.
Fox News: Are marijuana users and cigarette smokers at the same risk of serious complications from COVID-19?
Rizzo: In my opinion, any substance that is burned and then inhaled exposes the airways and lungs to particles and toxins that lead to a certain degree of inflammation in the airways similar to the inflammation that can be seen in sufferers chronic asthma or COPD. These two groups of patients have been shown to be at increased risk for complications from COVID-19, which suggests to me that cannabis smokers, like cigarette smokers, may have more complications if they are infected.
The question of whether there are similar risks between cigarette smokers and cannabis users has been difficult to determine for a number of reasons. First, because of federal cannabis laws, it has been difficult to do large-scale cohort studies to study the effects on the airways over time.
There is also the confounding effect that many cannabis users are also cigarette smokers, so it becomes difficult to see which substance led to a particular discovery in the lungs.
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There are also other distinctions. The depth of inhalation and breathing of cannabis smokers is generally different from that of many cigarette smokers. In addition, cannabis burns at a much, much lower temperature than a commercially produced cigarette, and for this reason, the person inhales a certain amount of unburnt plant material. This material can irritate the lungs in the same way as ragweed, birch and oak pollen for people allergic to these allergens.
Fox News: Are occasional marijuana users and chronic marijuana users at equal risk of COVID-19 complications?
Rizzo: “Chronic” smoking of cannabis, defined as daily use, damages the lungs over a period of time and the end result is a degree of chronic bronchitis similar to that seen in patients with COPD or chronic asthma. We know that [a] more intense and longer use of cigarettes seems to lead to an increased risk of certain diseases, such as lung cancer. There is no evidence to date that chronic cannabis use causes chronic diseases of pulmonary COPD or lung cancer. But remember the aphorism, “the absence of evidence is not proof of absence”.
Fox News: For those who use marijuana to relieve anxiety in these uncertain times, what would you recommend instead?
Rizzo: Some of the same things in this regard apply to cigarette smokers. Cigarette smokers often find that anxiety and stress are [some] of the main barriers preventing them from quitting smoking. Stopping in times of stress means you have to rely on other modalities, [which may] include regular exercise, the use of relaxation and meditation techniques, and certainly try to build a support network around you, with household members or with friends. It is important to discuss the options with your health care provider.
Fox News: Are marijuana users at increased risk even if they follow social distancing guidelines and are as safe as possible?
Rizzo: No, the risk of getting the infection is not increased by smoking itself. The risk of acquiring the infection is increased if smoking is practiced in a gathering of individuals, especially if there is sharing of any material that can contain or transfer respiratory droplets from one individual to another. In other words, sharing the joint with friends is a great way to get the infection from a friend who may not know they have the disease. Social distancing, as well as frequent hand washing and avoiding people known to be infected, are the best way to prevent infection.
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Fox News: How can people keep their lungs as healthy as possible during this time? Is there any specific advice?
Rizzo: Good advice for lung health includes the main recommendations for general good health – regular exercise, proper sleep, adequate hydration, and maintaining normal body weight. Behavioral issues are specific to lung health, such as not smoking or vaping, avoiding indoor and outdoor air pollution, and receiving annual influenza vaccines and pneumococcal vaccines, if necessary.