Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome: Could too much pot make you sick?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area emergency room doctors say they're seeing an increase in the number of patients presenting with what had been a rare reaction to cannabis use. The I-Team looks into the uptick in Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome cases.

When prescription back pain medications made Kathleen Adams groggy, she switched to cannabis as a more natural, holistic alternative.

"This was the cartridge right here that goes onto the little battery," said Adams while holding up a vape cartridge.

At first her back pain subsided, but after a couple of years she says she needed more cannabis to get the same relief.

"The last purchase I made was a very highly concentrated 97% product and I went through that in just a couple of days, whereas normally it would last me a week and a half to two weeks," said Adams.

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In early February, Adams woke up sick to her stomach, vomiting profusely and unable to regulate her body temperature. "I've had babies, I've had kidney stones and this was by far the worst, most uncomfortable, painful, scary thing I've gone through," said Adams.

She went to the emergency room, where she was treated for a stomach bug and sent home. A few days later, she was back in the ER.

She mentioned to a doctor that scorching hot baths brought her some relief. "And a lightbulb went off for him and he said that sounds like CHS," said Adams.

CHS stands for Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome. "It's essentially a syndrome of cyclic vomiting that happens almost always when it's related to cannabis or marijuana from chronic everyday use for quite some time," said Dr. Christopher Colwell, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

Dr. Colwell didn't treat Adams, but says the number of patients he sees like her is up. "Before I might see it once a week, maybe a couple of times a month, now it's pretty much every shift," said Dr. Colwell.

Dr. Colwell says legalization of marijuana has played a role.

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Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who studies addiction, agrees. "Most of the growth we're seeing in American cannabis consumption is in this population of people who maybe used to smoke once a week or twice a week and is now smoking many times a day, and that is the critical risk factor for developing this condition," said Dr. Humphreys.

Dr. Humphreys says often times people who don't realize it's cannabis making them sick will ingest more in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms.

"There's nothing inherently good or bad about the plant at all, it can be useful and have health applications, but also, like any other drug, it can have adverse effects," said Dr. Humphreys.

Which is why Adams is sharing her story.

"I really don't want anybody else to go through what I went through and not know what it was and continue doing it," said Adams.

She says since she stopped using cannabis, her symptoms have improved significantly. "I encourage everyone to be very careful and very cautious and know your body," said Adams.

See more stories and videos related to cannabis here.

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