Smoking marijuana may increase risk of coronavirus complications — here’s what experts recommend instead

There are now more than 1.6 million cases of the coronavirus worldwide, 475,000 of them in the U.S. alone. While experts have pinpointed certain underlying conditions that put Americans at risk of serious infection from COVID-19 — many linked to obesity — new guidance from the American Lung Association suggests that marijuana smoking should also be considered a risk factor.

"What happens to your airways when you smoke cannabis is that it causes some degree of inflammation, very similar to bronchitis, very similar to the type of inflammation that cigarette smoking can cause," pulmonologist Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association said in a call with reporters on Thursday. "Now you have some airway inflammation and you get an infection on top of it. So, yes, your chance of getting more complications is there."

The American Lung Association is warning that even occasional marijuana smoking may put individuals at higher risk of serious infection from COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)

Experts from the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to marijuana reform, echo Rizzo’s thoughts. “Health experts have advised that smoking anything has the potential to increase the severity of the respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19,” Violet Cavendish, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Medical marijuana patients and adult consumers who might have or contract the virus should consider using non-smoked products that do not impact lung function such as edibles, pills, tinctures and salves.”

Most people, based on current data, report moderate to mild symptoms from COVID-19 and will make a full recovery. But in rare cases, the infection can turn fatal, causing severe cases of pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in the lungs). One of the factors driving these serious infections is inflammation in the lungs, which can be caused by smoking.

The National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes marijuana smoke as an “irritant” to the lungs and explains why. “Marijuana smoking is associated with large airway inflammation, increased airway resistance, and lung hyperinflation, and those who smoke marijuana regularly report more symptoms of chronic bronchitis than those who do not smoke,” NIDA writes. “One study found that people who frequently smoke marijuana had more outpatient medical visits for respiratory problems than those who do not smoke.”

NIDA adds that studies show smoking marijuana can cause even more inflammation than tobacco, because of how deeply it’s inhaled. With the drug now legal recreationally in 11 states (plus the District of Columbia), and medically in 33 states, using marijuana has become more accepted nationwide. Although studies show that this shift in legalization has not dramatically increased use over the last five years, a July 2019 Gallup poll, found that many adults do currently smoke.

Based on Gallup’s results, 12 percent of Americans over the age of 18 smoke marijuana. The number increases when divided by gender, with 15 percent of men reporting that they smoke marijuana, compared to nine percent of women. Smoking is particularly prevalent in the Midwest, East and West, where between 13 and 16 percent of adults smoke.

With shelter-in-place orders in many parts of the country, leading Americans to remain indoors, the marijuana industry is experiencing a boom. In March, marijuana sales in Oregon reached a record-breaking $84.5 million, more than $20 million more than sales the year prior. Both Colorado and California also reported a spike in sales in March, a change they linked to the coronavirus.

As a result of these jumps — and the potential for increased risk among those who smoke cannabis — marijuana nonprofit NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has been speaking out and urging users to stay safe. “Because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, consumers, and in particular, those patients who may be susceptible to greater health risks, should either limit or altogether avoid their exposure to combustive smoke of any kind,” NORML wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill. “Alternative delivery devices, such as vaporizer heating devices can significantly mitigate combustive smoke exposure, and of course, the use of edibles or tinctures can eliminate smoke exposure entirely.”

Marijuana Policy Project agrees, calling on local leaders to ensure that users are choosing safe products — especially in places where it is not legal. “States that have not legalized medical marijuana or adult-use marijuana sales should take that action in order to ensure the availability and safety of non-smoked marijuana products.”

Beyond choosing edibles as an alternative option, NORML cautions that users should not fall victim to false claims that marijuana can actually treat COVID-19. “We also encourage cannabis consumers and others to beware of online misinformation surrounding the use of either whole-plant cannabis or CBD as a potential remedy for the COVID-19 virus,” NORML writes in The Hill op-ed. “To be clear, there is as of yet no substantiated clinical data supporting either the prophylactic or therapeutic use of cannabis products in the treatment of COVID-19. In short, if something sounds too good to be true, it likely is too good to be true.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle's newsletter.