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Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) is a condition that leads to repeated and severe bouts of vomiting. It results from long-term use of marijuana (cannabis).
Marijuana is the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the Cannabis sativa plant. Hashish refers to this same plant matter. But hashish is concentrated into a resin. Marijuana has several active substances. These include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and related chemicals. These bind to molecules found in the brain. That causes the drug “high” and other effects that users feel.
Your digestive tract also has a number of molecules that bind to THC and related substances. So marijuana also affects the digestive tract. For example, the drug can alter the time it takes the stomach to empty. It also affects the esophageal sphincter. That’s the tight band of muscle that opens and closes to let food from the esophagus into the stomach. Long-term marijuana use can change the way the affected molecules respond and lead to the symptoms of CHS.
Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the U.S. Young adults are the most frequent users. A small portion of these people develop CHS. It usually only happens in people who have regularly used marijuana for several years. Often CHS affects those who use the drug at least once a day.
Marijuana has very complex effects on the body. Researchers are still trying to learn exactly how it causes CHS in some people.
In the brain, marijuana often has the opposite effect of CHS. It helps prevent nausea and vomiting. The drug is also good at stopping such symptoms in people having chemotherapy.
In the digestive tract, marijuana seems to have the opposite effect. It actually makes you more likely to have nausea and vomiting. With first use, the signals from the brain may be more important. That may lead to anti-nausea effects at first. But with repeated use of marijuana, certain receptors in the brain may stop responding to the drug in the same way. That may cause the repeated bouts of vomiting found in people with CHS.
It still isn’t clear why some heavy marijuana users develop the syndrome. But others do not.
People with CHS suffer from repeated bouts of vomiting. In between these episodes are times without any symptoms. Healthcare providers usually divide these symptoms into 3 stages. They are the prodromal phase, the hyperemetic phase, and the recovery phase.
During the prodromal phase, the main symptoms are usually early morning nausea and belly (abdominal) pain. Some people also develop a fear of vomiting. Most people keep normal eating patterns during this time. Some people use more marijuana because they think it will help stop the nausea. This phase may last for months to years.
The hyperemetic phase is next. Symptoms during this time may include:
During this phase, vomiting is often intense and overwhelming. Many people take a lot of hot showers during the day. They find that doing so decreases their nausea. (That may be because of the effects of the hot temperature on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It has effects on both temperature regulation and vomiting.) People often first seek medical care during this phase.
The hyperemetic phase may continue until the person completely stops using marijuana. Then the recovery phrase starts. During this time, symptoms go away. Normal eating is possible again. This phase can last days to months. Symptoms usually come back if the person tries marijuana again.
Many health problems can cause repeated vomiting. To make a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and your past health. He or she will also do a physical exam, including an exam of your abdomen.
Your healthcare provider may also need more tests to rule out other causes of the vomiting. That’s especially the case for ones that may signal a health emergency. Based on your other symptoms, these tests might include:
CHS was only recently discovered. So some healthcare providers may not know about it. As a result, they may fail to spot it for many years. They often confuse CHS with cyclical vomiting disorder. It’s a health problem that causes similar symptoms. A gastroenterologist might make the diagnosis.
If you have had severe vomiting, you might need to stay in the hospital for a short time. During the hyperemesis phase, you might need these treatments:
Symptoms often decrease after a day or two unless marijuana is used before this time.
To fully recover, you need to stop using marijuana all together. Some people may get help from drug rehabilitation programs to help them quit. Cognitive behavioral therapy or family therapy can also help. If you stop using marijuana, your symptoms should not come back.
Very severe, prolonged vomiting may lead to dehydration. It may also lead to electrolyte problems in your blood. If untreated, these can cause rare complications such as:
Your healthcare team will quickly work to fix any dehydration or electrolyte problems. Doing so can help prevent these problems.
You can prevent CHS by not using marijuana in any form. You may be reluctant to believe that marijuana might be the underlying cause of your symptoms. That may be because you have used it for many years without having any problems. The syndrome may take several years to develop. The drug may help prevent nausea in new users who don’t use it often. But people with CHS need to completely quit using it. If they don’t, their symptoms will likely come back.
Quitting marijuana may lead to other health benefits, like:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
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