Secondhand Smoke Explained

Secondhand smoke is a combination of the smoke from the lit end of the cigarette and the smoke exhaled by the smoker. When non-smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke many of the effects caused by smoking can occur.

young female smoking while driving inside the car

Types of Secondhand Smoke

There appears to be a clear distinction between sidestream smoke – the unprocessed smoke from the end of the cigarette, cigar or pipe and mainstream smoke – the smoke exhaled by the smoker.

Sidestream smoke contains more carcinogens and is more toxic. It can also make its way into non-smokers lungs more easily due to the smaller size of particles.

Mainstream smoke is slightly less harmful but is still dangerous due to the large quantity that is produced by a smoker’s exhale.

Research suggests that particles from secondhand smoke can eventually settle into dust and remain in that state for extended periods of time. Some scientists refer to these particles as thirdhand smoke. The effects these chemicals have on the body are not yet fully tested, however, researchers have discovered the presence of carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in samples of dust taken from houses of smokers.

Specific Health Risks

Exposure to the chemicals in secondhand smoke can weaken your immune system and put you at greater risk of developing cancer.  Although lung cancer is the greatest risk, some evidence suggests that secondhand smoke may also be linked to breast cancer. The risk of lung cancer in nonsmokers increases by 25 to 30 percent when regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. About 3,000 deaths occur each year in nonsmokers who live with smokers.

In addition to increasing the risk of lung cancer, secondhand smoke also boosts your risks of other lung and respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. It can cause more complications associated with asthma in susceptible individuals as well.

Secondhand smoke also drastically increases your risk of having a heart attack, almost as much as if you smoked yourself. Exposure to secondhand smoke is responsible for nearly 50,000 fatal heart attack deaths each year. A 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine found that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke could be significant enough to trigger a heart attack.

Another matter that is less deadly but still a very serious concern is that exposure to secondhand smoke can cause problems with infertility and miscarriage. A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center found that women who grew up with at least six hours a day of exposure to secondhand smoke were 68 percent more likely to have difficulty getting pregnant and to suffer from one or more miscarriages.

What Are the Effects of Secondhand Smoke Exposure?

Secondhand smoking carries most of the same dangers as regular smoking. The same carcinogenic chemicals that are found in regular smoke also exist in second hand smoke. While the rate of some at which a non-smoker is exposed to smoke is lower than that of a smoker it is by no means negligible.

The extent to which secondhand smoke plays a factor in lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases amongst non-smokers is troubling to say the least.

Studies indicate that every year as many as 42,000 cases of heart disease amongst non-smokers are related to secondhand smoke. Every year 7,000 cases of lung cancer deaths amongst non-smoking adults can be attributed to secondhand smoke.

Where Can You Be Exposed?

The most disconcerting aspect of secondhand smoke is that everyone can get exposed regardless of their personal decisions and actions. Despite the government regulations, it is still quite common to come in contact with secondhand smoke in your workplace, in public spaces such as parks, restaurants or public transportation. Another major source of secondhand smoke can be your home. Because of that fact the US environmental agency has been working to encourage people to make their homes and cars a smoke-free place.

Secondhand Smoke and Children

pregnant woman and a child

Smoking increases risks of miscarriages, stillbirths, and ectopic pregnancies.

Women who are exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy have a significantly higher chance of miscarriages, stillbirths, and ectopic pregnancies. Any family member of a smoker can develop health problems related to secondhand smoke.

Children are especially sensitive to the toxic chemicals found in secondhand smoke. Your child is significantly more likely to suffer from asthma, lung infections and ear infections if they frequently come in contact with tobacco smoke.

If left untreated, some of these diseases can be a serious threat to the children’s health. Secondhand smoke is also linked to many cases of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

Adults often have a choice about whether or not they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. But children are powerless and vulnerable when it comes to smoke exposure, and it can have detrimental effects on a child’s development.

One of the biggest potential risks to child health from growing up in a smoking home is chronic asthma. As many as one million children are suffering from asthma because of exposure to secondhand smoke, and the secondhand smoke makes related health complications more likely to occur. Children who grow up around secondhand smoke are at greater risk of upper respiratory and lung infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.

Infants exposed to secondhand smoke have more ear infections and are at much higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

When mothers smoke during pregnancy, it can also cause problems with their child’s development. Prenatal smoking is associated with very low birth weights and premature births, which endangers a baby’s life and can require expensive medical care at the time of birth.

Minimizing Secondhand Smoke Risk

The risks of secondhand smoke increase proportionately with the amount of smoke you’re exposed to, although there is no safe level of exposure. When you’re a child, you obviously have no choice about whether or not you’re exposed to smoke. Public health and safety campaigns may be more effective in encouraging parents and other adults not to smoke in the presence of children.

Many cities are passing ordinances that prohibit smoking in indoor spaces, including places of work, government buildings, and even restaurants and bars. When Pueblo, Colorado enacted a smoking ban in 2003, it resulted in a 27 percent reduction in hospital admissions for heart attacks. Helena, Montana found a 40 percent reduction in heart attacks after a smoking ban. However, some studies suggest that those improvements are only temporary.

However, public support is not unanimous when it comes to smoking bans in bars, with support for such measures running only slightly above 50 percent. Even cities that pass ordinances that ban smoking in bars and restaurants often revisit those issues later. The city of Casper, Wyoming, for example, successfully voted to overturn their ban on smoking in certain public spaces.

Limiting or completely avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is the only way to get rid of your risks from it. Although changes in public opinion and even legislation prohibiting secondhand smoke can definitely help to reduce the risk, ultimately only you can control your health by choosing to avoid exposure.

The first thing you should consider in order to protect your family from secondhand smoke is to quit smoking. Teach your children to avoid secondhand smoke whenever possible. Avoid restaurants that allow smoking. If quitting is not an option, do not to smoke or allow smoking in your home or inside your car. This will greatly reduce the amount of secondhand smoke your family is exposed to, and decrease the chance of your children becoming smokers in the future. Reducing the places where you smoke to provide a healthier environment for your family can also be a great first step towards quitting smoking altogether. 

Check out more of our great articles:

The Effects of Smoking

Top 10 Tips and Tricks for Quitting

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