While the use of medical cannabis as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions gains awareness and support, it also remains a very controversial, much contested one. People on both sides argue the pros and cons of the plant. Does cannabis cause anxiety, or does it cure it? Does it help alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and treat cancer? Or is it bereft of medical properties? One condition where you likely didn’t expect controversy to exist could be when it pertains to cannabis and itchiness. But yes, medical experts are debating the potential benefits or disadvantages of marijuana for treating the discomfort of itchiness.
What kind of itchiness are we talking about? Can cannabis, for example, relieve the unbearable discomfort of a mosquito bite? While the link between mosquito bite relief and cannabis has not been tested, there are new emerging (and yes, contradicting) schools of thought that address whether marijuana may both cause itchy allergic reactions and provide relief for skin disorders such as psoriasis. Essentially, it depends on what kind of itchiness you may be experiencing.
To begin with, let’s talk about the kind of itchiness that cannabis may cause: allergies. Allergists have begun issuing warnings about cannabis allergies now that legal use is becoming more ubiquitous. According to a study by Thad L. Ocampo, MD and Tonya S. Rans, MD, inhaling cannabis pollen has been linked to certain itch-inducing reactions such as rhinitis (an inflammation of the nasal passages), conjunctivitis (swelling and itchiness of the eyes), and even pruritus (severe itching of the skin). Ocampo and Rans also submit that, on occasion, just touching the plant can cause hive-like reactions on the skin, or puffiness and swelling around the eyes.
In the above-described situations, Cannabis appears to potentially cause itchiness if one is allergic. The best case in this scenario is to avoid inhaling or handling marijuana altogether. With the increasing opportunity to interact with the cannabis plant as more states legalize cannabis either for recreational or medical purposes, there could be more danger to people with severe cannabis allergies. Ocampo and Rans suggest that people who have a history with anaphylaxis or severe whole-body allergic reactions keep an epinephrine injector on them at all times.
However, if you’re not allergic to marijuana, it can have the opposite effect for ailments that cause extreme itchiness and pain, such as psoriasis. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that makes skin cells multiply 10 times faster than normal, causing immature skin cells, known as keratinocytes, to rise to the surface before they’re fully developed. This results in patches of itchy, painful skin.
At present, psoriasis is incurable, but studies have found that cannabis plays a key role in slowing the rapid growth of keratinocytes. The body’s endocannabinoid system has receptors that bind with cannabinoids found in marijuana. Two main receptors have so far been identified: CB1 which regulates the perception of pain when bound with cannabinoids, and CB2 which works as an immune-booster and anti-inflammatory when bound with cannabinoids. With a painful, inflammatory, autoimmune disorder such as psoriasis, saying that marijuana relieves the itch would be an understatement. Cannabis works on multiple fronts to reduce the hyper-proliferation of cells, reducing the patches of dry, irritated skin, and thus decreasing the itch.
A study was done at the Gwyneed Cannabis Club in Wales to treat a subject with acute psoriasis. The subject applied three treatments of topical cannabis oil per day for nine days. Within that nine-day period, the subject experienced a complete healing of her skin with no negative side effects.
Like many things in the medical marijuana world, more research is needed to fully determine the efficacy of cannabis for treatment in disorders such as psoriasis. The US categorization of cannabis as a Schedule I drug which asserts that cannabis has no medicinal value, is the main barrier for cannabis research. Until this is changed, fully understanding the power or limitations of medical cannabis remains limited.
For example, it appears that even smoking cannabis can have a relieving effect on the uncomfortable effects of psoriasis. One psoriasis patient describes his experience with psoriasis medications and cannabis. This patient uses Stelara to reduce the patches of keratinocytes on his skin, but says that it does not help with the itch, which he describes as “maddening.” At a fortuitous moment, he happened to smoke marijuana with a friend and discovered that the itch rapidly faded away. He now uses marijuana to calm the discomfort of his disorder.
Even with the deficit of research, some states are recommending that psoriasis or other autoimmune disorders be added to the list of ailments eligible for medical marijuana. Connecticut, for example, is specifically recommending that severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis be added.
At this time, and with the limited amount of qualified research available, it remains somewhat debatable that marijuana likely can contribute to, and also relieve itch, depending on the origin of the specific condition. However, if the same logic that applied to the psoriasis patient who found that smoking could soothe his discomfort were applied to other conditions, then it may do the same for other causes of itchiness. But, as previously stated, more research is needed on all fronts.
What it comes down to is this: if you suspect that you may be allergic to cannabis, like any other possible allergens, it could cause severe discomfort, and avoidance would be the best recommendation. If, however, you have psoriasis, it may relieve severe discomfort. Just like any medication, cannabis will affect everyone differently. If you’re thinking about using medical cannabis to treat the pain and itchiness of psoriasis, or other skin disorders, speak to your doctor first to discuss the best treatment plan or contact us for a consultation.