The Harmful Effects Of Secondhand Smoke

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

Most people know smoking is unhealthy and can lead to serious medical problems, but even being around others who smoke can lead to health conditions. Breathing in secondhand smoke is also a cause of various health problems. Secondhand smoke, also known as passive smoke, not only comes from the exhaled smoke from the smoker, but from the burning tobacco product itself. Exposure to secondhand smoke can occur anywhere including restaurants, work places, parks and even in your own home. There are hundreds of chemicals in the smoke from tobacco products, many of which are known to be harmful.

Increased Risk Of Cancer

Many of the chemicals in smoke from tobacco have been identified as carcinogens, which means it may cause cancer in some people. While many people are aware of the dangers of smoking themselves, they may not realize secondhand smoke is also a threat.

Being around secondhand smoke can increase a person’s risk of certain types of cancers. Just as smokers have an increased risk of lung cancer, those who are around secondhand smoke are also at risk of developing the disease. Similar to smoking yourself, there appears to be a cumulative effect. The longer the person is exposed to smoke, the greater their risk of developing the disease.

In addition to lung cancer, secondhand smoke is linked to a possible increased risk of other types of cancer including breast, bladder and stomach cancer. Although additional studies need to be done, according to the American Cancer Society, there appears to be some evidence that secondhand smoke is also a contributing factor to childhood leukemia.

Heart Disease

Researchers have concluded smoking and being around secondhand smoke can lead to heart disease. The exact amount of exposure, which can lead to heart problems, is not clear, but researchers believe damage can take place even with brief exposure.

Chemicals in cigarettes including nicotine and hydrogen cyanide can cause damage to the blood vessels and cause deceased blood flow to the heart. Levels of good cholesterol, which protects against heart disease, are also decreased. The heart rate and blood pressure can also increase. All of these factors combined create a much greater risk of heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. In fact, being around secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease by about 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and about 45,000 deaths each year in the United States are linked to secondhand smoke exposure.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Research has long indicated that smoking is the number one cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but smokers are not the only ones who are at risk. People who are around secondhand smoke also develop COPD, which can include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chemicals in the smoke damage the lungs making them lose their elasticity. This makes getting enough oxygen in the lungs difficult. It also interferes with exhaling completely and removing carbon dioxide from the lungs. Breathing becomes difficult, and symptoms often include wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing. Damage to the lungs is not reversible, and symptoms often progressively get worse.

Danger To Children

Although it is unhealthy for people of all ages, secondhand smoke is especially dangerous for pregnant women, babies and young children. Women who are pregnant and are around secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of having a baby with a low birth weight.

Babies who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also at a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome. The increased risk may be due to chemicals in the smoke affecting the area of the brain which controls the infant’s breathing.

Young children are also negatively affected by exposure to passive smoke. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, lung function is decreased in children who breathe in secondhand smoke. The childhood asthma rate is also higher for children who live with smokers. Although most children get occasional respiratory infections, children around smokers tend to get more sore throats and colds.

In addition to respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, being higher in children who breathe in secondhand smoke, ear infections also develop more frequently. The risk for hospitalization also goes up. Children who are in homes where a parent smokes are at twice the risk of having an infection or asthma attack which requires hospitalization.

Since there does not appear to be an acceptable level of exposure to secondhand smoke, it is important to take steps to decrease your risk. Consider having a no smoking policy in your home and car. Try to avoid public places, such as restaurants, which allow smoking. Check the laws in your state to determine if smoking is allowed in or near your workplace. The bottom line is secondhand smoke can lead to serious medical problems, but by taking certain precautions you can decrease your exposure.


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