If you smoke, vape or otherwise inhale your cannabis, you should be thinking about your lung health. Whether you’re a regular user, enjoy an occasional puff, or take record-setting dab hits, what you breathe in has an effect on your lungs. So you should know what weed’s effect on the lungs really is.
However, understanding the effect weed has on your lung health is only part of the picture. (And maybe, for you, not even the most interesting part.) Knowing weed’s effect on the lungs is also essential for understanding the ideas that drive innovation in the cannabis industry.
New products, new technology, new practices—they’re all about refining and improving your experience with cannabis, whether you use it for health, wellness, pleasure or all of the above.
We take a look at accessible information about weed’s effect on the lungs, drawn from the best research. Beyond the basics of how cannabis interacts with your lungs, we also examine how those interactions change depending on what cannabis product you’re using—and how those differences are driving innovation.
So take a deep breath—and away we go!
What Is A Lung, Anyway?
Okay, we’ll start with the most important element. You can’t know weed’s effect on the lungs without knowing what a lung is and how it works, right?
The lungs are amazing organs. As you breathe in, muscles pull air down your throat and into an ever-narrowing series of airways, ending up in the alveolar ducts. In these ducts, your lungs exchange life-giving oxygen for toxic carbon dioxide.
Hundreds of millions of microscopic alveoli push oxygen into your bloodstream and pull out CO2, which you then exhale. It’s this blood/air exchange that makes it possible for inhaled weed to get into your system.
It’s amazing: if you could connect all the airways in your lungs together to form a tunnel you could drive through, it would take you more than a full day to go end to end at highway speed. Don’t try to hold your breath in that tunnel!
That’s a ton of space for weed smoke to go. 1,500 miles or so, in fact. So when you’re thinking about weed’s effect on the lungs, think about all that tubing.
What Effect Do Different Cannabis Delivery Methods Have On Your Lungs?
The answer to this all-important question really comes down to the type of cannabis product you’re inhaling. Are you smoking dried flower? Vaping an oil cartridge? Dabbing some concentrate? It makes a difference. Here’s what they are.
Weed’s Effect on the Lungs: Smoking and Vaping Flower
Let’s start with the all-time most popular cannabis deliver method: dried flower. You can smoke or vape herb; each method has its own specific effects on your lungs.
Inhaling Weed Smoke Hits Your Lungs With The Highest Amount of Harmful Chemicals
Compared to other methods of weed inhalation, smoking dried cannabis flowers is the method that puts the most “stuff” in your lungs. As in, stuff that isn’t the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavinoids you want to inhale.
When professionals talk about marijuana smoke, they often compare it to tobacco smoke. In that regard, studies have shown that smoke from combusted cannabis flowers contains many of the same tar and carcinogenic compounds as tobacco smoke.
In some cases, weed smoke even has more carcinogens than tobacco smoke. But it’s still less toxic overall.
Vaping Flower Can Reduce Your Lungs’ Exposure To Toxic Combustion Products
The rise of portable vaping devices has made vaping cannabis flowers more available to many. It’s an innovation driven by the desire to consume cannabis in healthier, safer ways.
Now no longer dependent on expensive, high-maintenance desktop vaporizing systems, fans of flower can have the best of both worlds.
Vaping cannabis flower simply means heating the buds at a lower temperature, below the combustion point of the plant matter itself. Because the desirable compounds in the flower sublimate into a gas at a temperature below combustion, vaping can “release” them from your buds before they burn.
It tastes better, it’s less harsh, and it just feels healthier, insofar as you’re not hacking up a lung after a deep inhale. Unfortunately, there are not many studies that compare smoking to vaping fl0wer.
The few that do exist found that vaping does, in fact, produce fewer harmful byproducts. It also turns out that temperature matters, in terms of dialing in the degrees that give you more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.
Vaping Cannabis Concentrates Will Treat Your Lungs Better Than Any Other Inhalation Method
That’s a big claim, but concentrates are produced by extracting only the desirable compounds from cannabis. These essential oils are super rich in cannabinoids like THC and CBD, as well as flavorful terpenes.
What they don’t include, however, is excess plant matter. Vaping flower heats your weed at a cooler temperature so you inhale less burnt plant matter containing tars and toxic chemicals. Vaping concentrates takes that plant matter out of the equation almost entirely.
Yet, not all concentrates are alike. How they’re made makes a huge difference in terms of weed’s effect on the lungs.
The carbon dioxide your lungs expel makes a curious reappearance here in the form of a cannabis oil. For those with access to commercial cannabis products, the days of home-brewed extractions are behind you.
In those dark days, folks used solvents like butane to extract plant cannabinoids and terpenes. However, ensuring that the process completely removed any leftover solvent was always, well, difficult.
CO2 oils, or solvent-free oils, are great because they don’t require additives to make the oil viscous enough for most vaporizers. Vaping CO2 oils is one of the best ways you can consume cannabis and take care of your lung health, too.
Oils Cut With Additives
In the world of oils, getting the right viscosity is everything. Otherwise, vaping can be a really frustrating experience.
Additives get introduced into cannabis oils and hash oils when they’re too thick to vaporize properly. They’re thinners. And they’ve already generated so much controversy that you shouldn’t expect products containing them to hang around much longer.
Producers can infuse over-thick oils with thinners like polyethylene glycol (PEG), propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin, or even coconut oil.
Needless to say, the often lung-conscious consumer, drawn to vaping for its benefits, finds the presence of these additives intolerable. And for sure, inhaling those compounds raises a number of health concerns, for the lungs especially.
Distillates Are The Purest Way To Inhale Your Weed
Distillates are ultra-refined cannabis oils. And they’re something of a double-edged sword when it comes to their effect on your lungs. They contain pure cannabinoids and contain nothing else. Not even the terpenes that give strains their signature aromas (and, some say, their signature effects).
As a result, they’re very thin oils, and therefore often require the use of a thinning additive. But in terms of making sure nothing else gets into your lungs, nothing beats distillates.
That’s what’s driving another innovation in the concentrates market: terpene infusions. These custom-mixed oils can give consumers the options of infusing pure cannabinoids with the palette of their favorite strains.
How Does Smoking (Or Vaping) Weed Impact Your Lung Health?
Professional research into the relationship between lung health and cannabis use is a very interesting area of study. And that’s because what researchers more or less assumed about weed’s effect on the lungs hasn’t turned out to be the case.
Cannabis, Lung Cancer, and Lung Disease
Tobacco smoke contributes to all kind of lung diseases, from emphysema to bronchitis and pneumonia. And we all know that tobacco smoke increases the risk of cancer, especially lung and throat cancer.
So, researchers reasonably hypothesized, marijuana smoke should contribute to lung disease too. Weed smoke should also cause cancer.
But after numerous animal and human studies, health professionals can only say conclusively that weed smoke raises concerns about the risk for cancer and lung disease, not that it raises the risk.
For example, researchers thought, as some studies suggested, that smoking weed would make people more vulnerable to lung infections. However, a large study of AIDS patients did not confirm that association.
Researchers also thought that smoking marijuana would cause lung cancer. That issue remains an open question.
The topic of cannabis and cancer is way too expansive to go into detail here. Suffice to say, the most recent, well-controlled, and largest studies have found no conclusive association between cannabis, even heavy use, and lung cancer.
In fact, animal studies have demonstrated the potential anti-tumor effects of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids. Researchers think this may have something to do with why cannabis smokers don’t show higher rates of lung cancer than non-smokers.
Smoking Weed Definitely Does Damage To Your Lungs
Dr. Donald Tashkin is one of the leading researchers investigating weed’s effect on the lungs. He’s been studying the issue for over three decades. And he knows that regular weed smoking does cause visible and microscopic damage to the large airways of the lungs.
In fact, inhaling smoke of any kind, even hot air, can cause irritation and inflammation in the lungs. People who smoke weed aren’t immune to this kind of damage.
But then again, weed’s well-documented use as an effective anti-inflammatory drug may be one reason lung inflammation doesn’t plague weed smokers.
Want even more good news? Dr. Tashkin believes this damage is reversible if a user stops smoking cannabis. Furthermore, the damage can be minimized by using a vaporizer, especially with concentrates (see above).
Can Weed Smoke Actually Have a Positive Effect on the Lungs?
It’s data like this that gives rise to the idea that smoking cannabis can actually be beneficial to the lungs, given the therapeutic effects.
In addition to their anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor capabilities, cannabinoids are powerful antioxidants. That means they can protect the cells in your lungs, and crucially their DNA, from the damage caused by carcinogens.
All we can say for sure is that weed doesn’t not damage your lungs or hurt your lung health. However, the extent of that harm and the factors that influence it are still largely to be determined.
If you want to completely avoid harming your lung health, there is one way to be 100 percent certain that your weed habit isn’t hurting your airways. Just eat your weed! Here’s a list of the best edibles out there to get you started.
Thanks for this write up! I found it while searching for the cause of some chest pain I have. I vape flower regularly (well at least since the pandemic) but now worry I have inflamed my lungs. I would like to add another aspect to this subject. I don’t feel comfortable approaching and discussing my periodic pain with my doctor. I’m in a state that is slow to the maryjane bandwagon. Now that medicine is going virtual, could there be an article on physicians who can discuss this issue, and balance it with the many positive effects I get from using? Apologies if it’s already out there.