Could cannabis help to treat long COVID?

Megan Townsend explores whether cannabis could revolutionise long COVID treatment...

by Megan Townsend

The list of conditions that benefit from medical cannabis treatment is continually getting longer. From IBS to anxiety, and fibromyalgia to glaucoma. With around 2 million people in the UK suffering from long COVID symptoms, and research findings supporting its use, could long COVID be the latest condition to add to that list?

What is long COVID? 

According to the NHS, the majority of people who catch COVID-19 begin to feel better a few days or weeks after the onset of symptoms, with full recovery taking up to 12 weeks. Unfortunately, some people’s symptoms last much longer – this is now known as long COVID, or post COVID-19 syndrome. 

Some of the most common symptoms of long COVID are: 

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue) 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Loss of smell 
  • Aching muscles

Despite this, the range of symptoms reported by those who suffer from long-COVID is vast and growing – some patients have also experienced:

  • Brain fog
  • Rashes
  • Chest pain and/or tightness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness 
  • Insomnia 
  • Joint pain 
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Sickness, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
  • Pins and needles

The chances of developing long COVID don’t appear to be based on how ill a patient is when they first contract the illness, with instances of people suffering with mild initial symptoms also going on to experience long term effects. 

As of 5th March 2023, around 1.9 million people (2.9% of the population) were experiencing self reported long COVID. Of these people, 69% had been experiencing symptoms for at least a year, and 41% had been experiencing symptoms for at least two years. 

As long-COVID is still a relatively new condition, there is much that is still unknown about it. Therefore, research is still exploring the way the condition presents in those that are vaccinated vs. those that are unvaccinated, as well as treatment and rehabilitation for patients. 

How is long COVID currently treated?

As long COVID is a nascent condition with over 200 possible symptoms, a singular treatment is neither available nor appropriate. Therefore, treatment plans can differ between patients in order to address their individual experience of long COVID. 

After being hospitalised for COVID-19, a patient may be given a rehabilitation plan to address their physical and mental health. This plan may include physiotherapy, occupational therapy, help from a dietitian or medication. As well as this, patients may also be referred to a long COVID clinic where they can receive further support, however it is important to note that this service is only available in England. 

A GP may also refer an individual for online rehabilitation via the ‘Your COVID Recovery’ programme, which offers support and advice to patients during their rehabilitation. 

However, these current long COVID treatments have been criticised for both their lack of evidence and quality. The bank of current treatments has tended to focus on self-management, with little support for patients from GPs and wider healthcare staff. This has led to patients turning to over-the-counter medicines to address their symptoms and social media platforms for support. This has the potential to expose patients to harmful drug interactions, as well as damaging misinformation. 

Therefore, there is a real need to explore new treatment and support options for long COVID. 

Could cannabis help to treat long COVID?

Medical cannabis is already used to treat many of the symptoms associated with long COVID, such as chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia and anxiety – meaning it may be an effective and appropriate treatment option. 

As well as this, emerging evidence suggests that cannabis, specifically a cannabidiol-rich cannabis oil, may help to treat long COVID symptoms, eventually resulting in recovery. 

In January 2022, Drug Science announced that the UK’s NHS Research Ethics Committee (NHS REC) and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had granted them approval to explore the efficacy of medical cannabis in treating long COVID. The study began in February 2022 and ran for six months, recruiting 30 participants diagnosed with long COVID who were administered daily doses of medical cannabis in an oil form. 

Cannabis for long COVID and post viral fatigue panel at Cannabis Europa

Although the results are still yet to be confirmed, preliminary findings were discussed during the ‘Cannabis for Long COVID and Post Viral Fatigue’ panel at this year’s Cannabis Europa conference. Kyle Esplin, a cannabis specialist and participant in the trial said: 

”It was obvious in a few days the toning down of the symptoms and I was starting to recover.”

The panel also pointed towards the unique nature of cannabis as a medicine, and the benefits this could have for the treatment of conditions such as long COVID. Discussing this point, Dr. Dani Gordon, founder and director of the London Resilience Clinic said: 

“Everyone is different when it comes to long COVID and post-viral fatigue and their response to cannabis. Cannabis is a really personalised process in the treatment of a really personalised illness.”

Therefore, the cannabis plant’s ability to target an array of conditions and symptoms, rather than just one, may come in handy when it comes to the treatment of long COVID. 

Research from around the globe suggests that medical cannabis may also be effective in both the treatment of COVID-19 infections and prevention of the virus. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that CBD had a significant negative association with positive COVID tests, meaning that CBD shows promise as a preventative agent for early-stage COVID infection. Further studies have also found CBD to be effective in inhibiting the spike protein associated with COVID-19. 

There’s no denying that patients are underserved by the current treatments for long COVID, meaning there is a pressing need for new and innovative approaches. Emerging research suggests that CBD-rich cannabis products may be the answer due to their ability to treat a range of symptoms associated with the condition. Hopefully future studies confirm this and patients can access treatments that adequately  address all of their symptoms.

This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

You may also like

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept

Privacy & Cookies Policy