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Marijuana allergies a growing problem, study says

With marijuana use becoming increasingly common — and legal for either medical or recreational use in a growing number of states — doctors are warning about a little-known health risk: It’s possible to be allergic to pot.

The authors of a new study say it’s a problem we could start seeing more often. Their research, published this week in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, rounded up the medical evidence documenting cases of allergic reactions to the marijuana plant, also known by its Latin name Cannabis sativa. “Although still relatively uncommon,” they write, “allergic disease associated with C sativa exposure and use has been reported with increased frequency.”

Like most plant allergens, they note, cannabis pollen can cause symptoms like allergic rhinitis — inflammation of the nasal passages accompanied by sneezing, congestion, itching and a runny nose — along with eye inflammation and asthma.

The authors, allergy and immunology specialists Dr. Thad Ocampo and Dr. Tonya Rans, say that in people with allergies, just touching the plant can cause skin reactions such as hives, itching and puffiness or swelling around the eyes.

Exposure to marijuana smoke can also set off symptoms such as nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, bloodshot eyes and an itchy throat.

Another potential allergy risk comes from ingesting edible cannabis products. One patient cited in the study suffered a serious reaction after eating hemp seed-encrusted seafood and required antihistamines and a shot of epinephrine, an emergency treatment for potentially life-threatening allergic reactions including anaphylaxis. Later tests proved the patient was not allergic to seafood — hemp seeds from the cannabis plant were the culprit.

Even in people who don’t use marijuana themselves, more widespread and open cultivation of the plant could lead to allergy problems. Cannabis pollen, which normally sheds in late summer and early autumn, is “very buoyant, allowing for distribution across many miles,” the study says.

The study urged doctors to be aware of marijuana as a possible source of allergy symptoms when making a diagnosis. The authors note that as pot becomes legal in more places, “marijuana might become an increasingly relevant ‘weed’ for the allergist.”

What advice do they have for patients who might be sensitive to marijuana? In a nutshell, just say no. “As with other allergens, avoidance is recommended,” they write.

A person who does develop allergy symptoms from marijuana might be helped by treatment with antihistamines, intranasal steroids or nasal decongestants, they said. Those with a history of anaphylaxis, a severe whole-body allergic reaction that can include difficulty breathing or swallowing, were urged to keep a prescription epinephrine injector, like an EpiPen, on hand.

Sinus problems turn out to be marijuana man shoved up his nose 18 years prior

Rhinolith typically occur when children put foreign objects into their noses.

Marijuana laws through the years

A 48-year-old Australian man is breathing easier after a brain scan revealed that his persistent sinus problems were being caused by a package of marijuana he’d shoved up his nose 18 years prior.

The patient’s case was described in the British Medical Journal in a report entitled “a nose out of joint.”

Years earlier, while the patient was incarcerated, he inserted a rubber balloon filled with marijuana, which his girlfriend had given him during a prison visit, into his right nostril. The small package got lodged further up his nasal passage, leaving the patient to mistakenly believe he’d swallowed it.

Instead, the marijuana package developed into a rhinolith, or a calcium deposit that forms inside the body, usually around a foreign object, the study said.

Rhinolith are rare and typically occur when children put foreign objects like beads, buttons, erasers, seeds of fruits, sand or pieces of paper up their noses during childhood. Patients report symptoms like nasal discharge, headache, facial pain, nosebleeds and an unpleasant smell.

The Australian man’s case is unique, his doctors say. The only other reported instance of a rhinoliith caused by illicit drugs occurred when a 21-year-old patient inserted codeine and opium wrapped in a nylon sheet up his nose.

In the Australian man’s case, the CT scan revealed a “rubber capsule containing degenerate vegetable/plant matter.” Further interviews with specific questioning led the patient to tell his prison smuggling story.

Three months after having the mass removed from his nasal cavity, the patient’s symptoms had completely resolved.