When a person with asthma suffers an attack, it is usually due to inflammation in the airways that transport air into the lungs.

Triggers including exercise, stress, cold air, mold, pet dander, car exhaust, dust mites and secondhand smoke can spark attacks, which cause the bands of muscle surrounding the airways to tighten, narrowing or blocking airways, making it difficult to breathe. Mucus fills the airways, further reducing the ability to breathe.

Symptoms of asthma

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest

But there are several different types of asthma, and in addition to inflammatory asthma, there is also a form called restrictive asthma, which could be genetic.

Both can be dangerous and potentially deadly.

“Asthma often requires medical attention,” says Dr. Paul Auerbach, founder of the Wilderness Medical Society. “In severe instances, asthma can become life threatening.”

According to statistics, more than 3000 people a year die from asthma-related health problems in the United States.

In addition to avoiding things that trigger attacks, asthma treatments include prescription medications including rapid-release rescue inhalers and other medications, all or which often have unpleasant side effects.

Treating Asthma with Medical Marijuana

For those who don’t tolerate traditional treatments well or who prefer a more holistic option, medical marijuana may also help treat asthma, experts say.

The connection between cannabis and asthma relief was discovered in the 1970s, when then-professor Dr. Donald P. Tashkin, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, said, “Recent studies demonstrated significant, acute bronchi-dilation in healthy young men after they smoked marijuana.”

Studies then showed that the THC in marijuana helped naturally dilate airways in some asthma patients, clearing blocked airways and producing immediate therapeutic benefits equal to rescue inhalers and lasting approximately the same amount of time, about two hours.

Since the 1970s, continual research has established cannabis as an effective asthma treatment option, with both THC and CBD, the two active ingredients in cannabis, gaining traction for their health benefits.

In addition to cannabinoids, marijuana also contains a-Pinene, a compound found in conifers that is commonly used as a bronchodilator.

In one study focusing on a-Pinene, marijuana “caused an immediate reversal of exercise-induced asthma and hyperinflation,” researchers said.

In 2012, a study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that asthmatics who smoked marijuana occasionally had higher lung function than those with asthma who did not smoke, and they did not suffer the type of lung damage often associated with tobacco.

Two 2015 studies, one from researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Pharmaceutical Science appearing in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, the other from Brazil, found that both THC and CBD helped ease inflammation. That opened up airways, allowing asthma patients to breathe easier.

“While only time will tell whether marijuana gains popularity as a treatment for asthma, it’s clear the compounds contained within marijuana (including THC and CBD) possess powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can help decrease and alleviate the symptoms of asthma,” wrote Dr. Perry Solomon, chief medical officer for the website HelloMD.com.

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