A good friend of mine was complaining recently that every time he has a smoke he gets a runny, nose. It was only when he mentioned that he suffers with hay fever that I had a ‘light bulb’ moment! Could it be an allergy to cannabis? Hay fever is essentially a pollen allergy and cannabis is a plant that produces pollen! I researched it and discovered that cannabis allergies and sensitivity was an actual ‘thing’ and that it had the potential to affect more people than I imagined.
Allergies are an immune overreaction by the body in an attempt to protect the respiratory system from perceived threats. The antibodies produced by the body keep the threat at bay, but also cause the symptoms of allergic responses. Allergy symptoms range from uncomfortable niggles to fatal seizures. In general day to day, allergies are mild to moderate at worst and relief is usually found by avoiding the irritant and/or taking an antihistamine tablet.
Cannabis allergies have been on the rise in recent years. If we take the figures from a 2015 study, it is estimated that 70-73% of those who suffer from seasonal allergies (like hay fever) can also potentially be allergic to Cannabis. This is because seasonal allergies are triggered by pollen and mould, and likewise, Cannabis is a pollen producing plant that is also susceptible to mould. If you take that there are roughly 50 million Americans with seasonal allergies, this means that as many as 36.5 million could potentially be allergic to Cannabis in the USA alone!
Cannabis allergies will frequently affect those ingesting cannabis and also those who grow it, work with it or are exposed to its cultivation on a regular basis. Allergies have both a genetic and an environmental component, meaning as your exposure to a substance increases then so does your risk of developing a sensitivity toward it and so with legalisation on the increase we are seeing sensitivity more often. Symptoms include, red, itchy, dry or watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, nasal/sinus congestion, nausea, and actual physical sickness!! It is possible in a minority of cases, as with any severe reaction to an allergen, that if left untreated symptoms could be life threatening.
So what is causing this sensitivity? Well there are several reasons. As with all plants, it is possible to be allergic to the pollen held within the cannabis plant, as well as to high levels of cannabinoids like THC. You can also experience an allergic reaction to substances that grow on or in the plant, such as mould. The Cannabis plant is an “accumulator” plant, meaning that it takes up everything from its growing environment via the root system, allowing the substances to then build up in the plant, including harmful heavy metals and other chemicals.
Over (or under) consuming, genetic modification, use of pesticides and fertilisers, selective breeding, sanitizing, and general human interference seems to be the norm these days in terms of the environments we live in, the products we use, and the food, and drink we consume. These things are constantly being altered and shaped to fit in with our lifestyles which leads to more and more intolerances and allergies as our bodies struggle to cope with anything less or more than it naturally requires.
When you are growing, what you are trying to do is to prevent pollination of the female plant. Doing this increases the plant’s psychoactive properties, raising THC content. Increasing THC potency is a major contributing factor in terms of the increasing number of allergy sufferers, as THC is recognised as a potential cannabis allergen.
Strains of cannabis with high levels of THC are very common today and in huge demand. Great for those chasing a stronger ‘high’ but the knock on effect is that the high levels of THC are causing hypersensitivity and allergic reactions. THC levels have risen dramatically on average, due to selective breeding, from 1% and 3% in the 60’s and 70’s respectively, 4% in the 90’s, up to 12% and above in recent years. With increasing legislation, research, development and large scale commercial growing it is not uncommon to now be able to find Cannabis with THC levels in the 20-30% margin! Some people however are just genetically pre-disposed to suffering a sensitivity regardless of THC levels, as they have genetic differences in how they metabolise cannabinoids such as THC, resulting in increased sensitivity.
Cannabis allergies can trigger hay fever-like allergy symptoms such as itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, conjunctivitis, sore throat, coughing and asthma. Cannabis contains Pollen, the most common allergen, which is a powder released by trees, grasses, and weeds to fertilise the seeds of neighbouring plants pollen. Though generally only thought to be a product of male plants, pollen can also be produced by hermaphrodite females and the fact that there are so many different strains of cannabis in existence today only adds further complexity to the issue.
Allergic reactions to pollen are more common in areas where cannabis is grown and so it is of no surprise that the number of allergen cases has increased in the areas, and surrounding areas, where large commercial legal grows are situated. Maybe one of the biggest groups that have experienced a rise in their sensitivity to cannabis from pollen related allergies, are those who work in close contact with it on the growing sites. Cannabis allergies can also present themselves as “contact dermatitis” and some of the most common symptoms include: dry, flaky or reddening skin, itchiness, inflammation and even hives!
Mould is a spore that grows on rotting logs, dead leaves, plants, and grasses. Many types of mould thrive in moist conditions, although there are also some types of “dry mould”. They form on cannabis where it is exposed to extremes of temperature or high levels of humidity, whether unintentionally or through lack of sufficient growing knowledge. Common moulds that you may have heard of include Root Rot, Mildew, and Leaf Septoria. Cannabis can also become mouldy if not stored correctly after harvest and cure. Some very sensitive people could even be unlucky enough to experience reactions to both the plant pollen and the mould! Symptoms from a mould allergy include Allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis, skin rashes, and worsening of asthma.
In its form as an accumulator plant, cannabis can take up dangerous levels of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, and mercury, which originate from contaminated water, soil and fertilisers, but it can also absorb any other hazardous substance or potential allergen that is present in the growing environment. These substances can then be responsible for any allergic reaction experienced from the inhalation or ingestion of cannabis, ranging from headaches and nausea to increased risk of respiratory problems and even cancer or organ failure if exposure is extreme and prolonged enough. The best way to avoid any over absorption of hazardous chemicals or heavy metals is to use quality medium, nutrients and additives, as cheap low grade products often contain lower grade heavy metal by-products.
Unfortunately, if you’re allergic to a food or substance with similar protein properties, known as an allergy cross-reaction, then you could find yourself at a higher risk of a cannabis allergy. Some foods that contain similar allergen properties to the cannabis plant are: tomatoes, Peaches, grapefruit, eggplant, bananas, apples, almonds, and chestnuts.
So what should you do if you suspect that you have a cannabis allergy? Well, if cannabis is still illegal, medically or recreationally where you live, then a doctor may not have much sympathy or care to do much about it! There are some over the counter remedies, such as antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays, inhalers and anti-decongestants that you may find do the trick.
If you are unfortunate enough to suffer a more serious reaction, then the only answer is to stop using cannabis altogether! In terms of limiting contact with cannabis whilst it’s growing, the recommendations are to wear protective clothing, gloves, and face masks, and to have allergy or asthma medication to hand at all times.
If you are legally using cannabis then a doctor can perform a skin prick test, If you’re allergic, you will react and show a response such as swelling or itching within 15 to 20 minutes. You can also have a blood test that looks for antibodies that are specific to a certain type of allergen. The more antibodies that are in your bloodstream, the more likely you are to be allergic to a specific substance.
It is of no surprise that cannabis allergies and sensitivity are on the rise, as it goes hand in hand with the beginnings of legalisation and the emergence of cannabis in to the mainstream, where more people are using it/ working with it and coming into closer contact with it. Overall cannabis allergies are still relatively uncommon. Cannabis Sativa is classified as a mild allergen that requires significant exposure to induce allergic reactions of any kind and although severe reactions have been noted, this is the exception rather than the rule and most symptoms are successfully treated with antihistamines or similar.
As with many sectors of the cannabis industry, due to the lack of standardisation in legislation, there is a limited amount of knowledge, testing and treatments available, which is very unfortunate. There is still a lot to be discovered before we can more precisely define allergens, develop standardised examples, cement testing specifics, and produce clear and effective courses of treatment for those that may need it.
By Rich Hamilton