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Can You Be Allergic to Weed?

For a lifelong smoker who develops a weed allergy, it’s like having to say goodbye to your best friend

Marijuana has always helped me,” says Ali (an alias). For years, it lulled her insomnia, consoled her depression and relieved her anxiety. So it was a shock when, suddenly, weed started working against her.

Initially, Ali wasn’t sure what was wrong. “I’d get a weird, almost knotted feeling in my stomach,” she explains. “I stayed hungry non-stop, but wouldn’t gain weight. I even thought at one point maybe I had a tapeworm.” As her mysterious malady grew worse, Ali says, “I began to feel nauseated at all times and would vomit profusely day in and day out. Over that year, I’d lost so much weight, and we still weren’t getting any real answers.”

All the while, Ali kept on smoking, hoping it would help. “It scared me, but I believe it scared my husband worse,” she says. “I remember, one night, he sat next to the bed where I was lying. I’d gone from a healthy woman, average size 14, to a size six in months, and it literally looked like I was just fading away day by day. He held my hand, and he just cried.”

For Ali, the moments of reprieve were few and far between. “During the months and months of vomiting, the only time I’d find relief was in a hot shower,” she says. “It felt like a never-ending battle every day. Of course, marijuana is known to help with nausea, so unbeknownst to me, I’d continue smoking, hoping that it would help, when, in actuality, I was only making it so much worse.”

Ali only realized that weed was the cause of her nonstop misery a year later, when a doctor finally diagnosed her with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a rare condition that occurs in daily long-term users of marijuana. “Once I realized what the actual problem was and why I was staying so sick, I quit marijuana altogether for months,” she says. “At first, I was devastated when I finally learned what was causing me to be so sick. I was mad and confused.” 

After years of a passionate love affair with weed, Ali says, “I was so scared I’d have to give it up forever.”

While cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome is uncommon and isn’t allergy-related, per se, Ali’s experience of developing an adverse reaction to weed is similar to the more common development of a weed allergy, and it usually happens to the same kinds of daily smokers. “With cannabis exposure increasing with legalization, you can become allergic to cannabis,” says allergist-immunologist Kathleen Dass. “Research so far shows that this occurs through lipid transfer proteins, which are found in pollen and can cause antibodies to develop.”

Symptoms of a weed allergy can involve vomiting, but are usually limited to hives, sneezing and other common allergic reactions. “If you develop an allergy, you’ll develop symptoms similar to other allergens,” Dass explains. “For instance, if you touch cannabis, you can develop contact hives or swelling. If you inhale the allergen, you can develop asthma symptoms — cough, shortness of breath, wheeze — or nasal and ocular symptoms, like runny nose, stuffy nose and itchy eyes. If you have an allergy and ingest cannabis, it’s possible to develop anaphylaxis.”

Similar to cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, you can develop a weed allergy after years of smoking. “Sensitization can occur if you work in the marijuana industry or through sensitization through inhalation,” says Dass. “You can also develop sensitization through hemp seed in food and drinks, which is also increasing in popularity due to its high protein content. Even if you don’t add hemp seed to your meals or work in the marijuana industry, you can still develop the allergy through ingestion, smoking, touching or inhaling cannabis. With any allergy, the more exposure you have, the more likely you are to become sensitized. It’s thought that at least 10 percent of people using marijuana have an allergy to it.”

While less severe weed allergies can be treated with simple antihistamines, usually, your best bet is giving up weed, especially if you develop something more serious, like cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. However, this is a hard pill to swallow for many smokers, and Ali has managed to continue smoking in ways that work for her. “I still smoke,” she says. “I’ve quit several times for different reasons, but always come back to my dear, trusted Mary Jane. I’ve learned how to read my body and its ‘warnings’ better to help me know when I’m getting close to my limit. If I start smoking too much, I’ll get that same weird feeling in my stomach that lets me know, ‘Okay girl, slow it down.’ And then I’ll just take a few days or the rest of the week off from smoking, and I won’t get sick.”

Nevertheless, Ali says if you’re a heavy smoker and aren’t feeling your best, get your ass to the doctor. “So many of us that are affected will always be in denial that our weed is making us sick, but once I figured it out, I was able to rebuild my relationship with marijuana, just in a different way,” she explains. “You don’t have to give it up altogether. You just have to know your limits, and listen to your body. And please, listen to that doctor that you swear is crazy.”