A smoke allergy, or being allergic to cigarette smoke, is hard to define. A person may be allergic to the chemicals in cigarette smoke, which can cause a reaction like a runny nose. Taken as a whole though cigarettes may or may not cause allergies.
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Allergic to Cigarette Smoke or Allergic to Something Else?
Cigarette smoke is known to be a risk factor in the development of autoimmune diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies in humans are a response of the immune system to different allergens. These allergens can be normal, everyday substances like:
- Animal hair
Allergens can also come in the form of different foods or drugs. Things like animal scratches and insect bites can also trigger an allergic reaction.
The body’s reaction to cigarette smoke does not qualify as an allergic reaction, per se. It can cause people to get a runny nose or watery eyes. But the chemicals inside provoke this reaction, especially in people who already have a sensitivity, like asthma.
It is not the immune system fighting these particles like it would with an allergen. With that being said, there are so many different chemicals in tobacco, and a person may have a sensitivity to none of them, a few of them or all of them.
Only a test can determine an allergy to any of the thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke. People can be allergic to nicotine, for example.
Smoke Allergy Symptoms
It’s important to know the difference between the smoking effects on one’s body and the symptoms. Someone with a sensitivity to tobacco can experience:
- A runny nose
- Coughing or wheezing
- Difficulty breathing
- Watery eyes
These symptoms can appear thanks to the inhalation of active or passive smoke. Again, whether the chemicals cause these symptoms to appear in the first place is still in dispute.
Studies looking at whether cigarette smoke causes allergies have found different results. One found a link between exposure to SHS and chronic rhinosinusitis (congestion) in children. The study did stop short of blaming SHS for allergies though.
At the same time, one study found a “reduced risk” of allergic sensitization, even in people with a family history of allergies, thanks to exposure to SHS.
One study from 2015 found that while “tobacco smoke exposure was associated with increased prevalence of rhinitis symptoms,” it was not associated “with allergic sensitization.” This study did not draw the link between allergies and cigarettes either.
The truth is that no one knows what causes an allergy in some, while not in others. So it is difficult to say whether someone is allergic to smoking. It may be the chemicals or something else entirely that may cause their symptoms to manifest.
The only way to know for sure is to take an allergy test. The test will determine to what, if anything, a person is allergic.
Nicotine acts as a stimulant and allergies are, again, difficult to diagnose. Symptoms include:
- A rash or hives
- Watery eyes
- A headache
- Stuffy nose
An allergic reaction to nicotine is more common through skin contact than through inhalation. As one study pointed out, “Nicotine, a small molecule … that easily passes through skin, has been demonstrated to act as a sensitizer only when contained within transdermal patches”.
An allergy to nicotine is different from Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs in tobacco harvesters exposed to the nicotine in the plants.
Symptoms of GTS are more severe and include:
Smokers, and the general public, never develop GTS, as it only comes with heavy, daily exposure to wet tobacco plants. People manifest nicotine allergies in other ways.
Someone with a severe nicotine sensitivity may exhibit symptoms like:
- Wheezing/difficulty breathing
- Swelling of hands, face, lips or other parts of the body
- Out of fifty-eight people, only 16% reacted to a nicotine patch on their skin.
A more recent study found sensitivity to nicotine in one patient through both skin contact and inhalation when the patch was tested on ten other smokers though no reaction was noted.
An Allergy to Smoking is a Good Thing to Have
People who smoke, especially indoors, can cause harm through second and thirdhand smoke more than through giving someone an allergy. Pets exposed to tobacco smoke can develop cancers and other smoking-related illnesses.
As far as allergies though, dogs and cats especially, can cause allergies, as pet dander is one of the most common allergens. A recent finding by the National Institute of Environmental Sciences found that households with pets had more airborne allergens inside than houses without pets.
Allergies do not happen overnight. It takes time for the body to create a response to a particular irritant. Someone needs to be exposed to a specific substance many times before they develop a reaction to it.
So if a person is not in regular contact with cigarette smoke, either active or passive, then it is unlikely they will develop an allergic reaction to it. A smoker can experience an allergic reaction, like a runny nose, watery eyes, or even hives, when they smoke. But they should take an allergy test to find out what is causing their sensitivity.