This Is Why Weed Makes You Cough So Much

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
Anyone who’s ever smoked marijuana has no doubt had the experience of violently coughing after taking a hit. But why does this only happen at some times and not others? And when you cough after a toke, does it really make you higher, as stoner-legend has it? We’ve got the facts for you.
Why Does Weed Make You Cough?
The most obvious reason is that your lungs just aren’t designed to breathe in smoke. Smoke of any kind — including marijuana smoke — consists of microscopic stable, liquid particles. These particles irritate the lungs and make it harder for your body to breathe. As a result, your brain signals your lungs to start coughing to expel these foreign objects so that normal breathing can be restored.
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However, this effect can be tempered with experience. Your lungs are incredibly adaptive, and they can be "trained" to cough less (or not at all, if you’re a seasoned smoker). That’s why your first time smoking cannabis almost certainly involved a lot of coughing — and why, for many, that effect lessens over time.
Can't Take The Heat
Heat also plays a significant role in making you cough after taking a hit. Smoking gets you high because the intense heat "activates" the the psychoactive chemical in the plant (THC). This activation allows the THC to quickly get into your bloodstream so that you feel the effects.
A byproduct of this intense heat is lung irritation. Your lungs and their sensitive tissues are easily irritated by the hot smoke, which causes you to cough. That’s why using a water pipe, such as a bong, is so effective at reducing coughing: The water cools down the smoke before it enters your lungs. Putting ice cubes in your bong can make that effect even stronger.
Also, any smoker knows that if you take a rip too big for you, then you’ll start coughing. The more lung capacity you have, the more smoke your lungs can hold. Like a balloon, your lungs can only hold so much. If you over-fill a balloon, it pops. Your lungs, on the other hand, are forced to expel the smoke in another way: coughing. That’s why getting too confident with your hit size can lead to a coughing fit.
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Lastly, the quality of your product has a significant effect on how likely it is to make you cough. An unfortunate reality is that less-than-reputable cannabis is often grown with pesticides and other additives, in addition to any dust or mildew that may have found its way into your stash. These things in and of themselves are irritating to your lungs, and exposing yourself to them will increase your risk of coughing.
But if you’re looking to get blasted, do you actually want to be coughing?
Does Coughing Make You Higher?
This question may be as old as the plant itself. Many stoners claim that if you cough from smoking, you’ll get higher than if you don’t. The prevailing theory is that coughing expands the lungs, which results in more surface area being exposed to the smoke.
But in reality, the lungs are expanding due to a forceful inhalation of air followed immediately by a cough. That's letting out all the smoke in your lungs. Since it’s the smoke that gets you high, and coughing quickly rids you of the smoke, it follows that coughing wouldn’t make you more high at all.
The reason it may seem that way is that just before you coughed, you probably took in more smoke than your lungs could hold. So even though you coughed the smoke back out, taking such a massive hit would still result in getting somewhat intoxicated. In short, taking a huge hit is what causes both the coughing and the feeling of being extra high, rather than the coughing bringing about a sense of being extra high in and of itself.
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Basically, the best way to maximize your intake would be to take as big of a hit as your body will allow without causing you to cough.
A version of this article originally appeared on Green Rush Daily.
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(Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that marijuana usage continues to be an offense under Federal Law, regardless of state marijuana laws. To learn more, click here.)
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