Being around tobacco smoke is bad for you, even if it’s someone else’s smoke.
When someone smokes a cigarette, most of the smoke doesn’t go into their lungs. It goes into the air, where anyone nearby can breathe it.
Secondhand smoke is what you inhale accidentally (called passive smoking) when you are near sources of tobacco smoke. For example, at parties or public gatherings, you might mingle with people who smoke. You may not feel any changes, but breathing secondhand smoke can affect your health.
Smoking is banned in many public places. But many people are still exposed to secondhand smoke, especially children who live with parents who smoke. Even people who try to be careful about where they light up may not protect those around them.
What is Secondhand Smoke?
Secondhand smoke is smoke you don’t mean to breathe in.
Exposure to secondhand smoke comes from side stream or mainstream smoke. Burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars or pipes, releases side stream smoke. A person actively smoking nearby exhales mainstream smoke. Both sources release harmful chemicals into the air that affect nonsmokers.
Secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke from the burning tip of a cigarette and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. When secondhand smoke contaminates the air, especially in enclosed spaces, it is inhaled by everyone, exposing both smokers and non-smokers to its harmful effects.
Key Facts about Secondhand Smoke
- The majority of smokers are men, but many women and children are affected by their secondhand smoke.
- Worldwide, secondhand smoke causes an estimated 600 000 premature deaths a year, the majority (64%) among women.
- In the Eastern Mediterranean Region 38% of students aged 13–15 are exposed to secondhand smoke at home, and in many countries only around a quarter of homes are smoke-free.
- There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and even short-term exposure potentially can increase the risk of heart attacks.
- Secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide.
- Secondhand smoke can cause heart attacks; even relatively brief exposure can trigger a heart attack.
Harmful Impacts of Secondhand Smoke
Did you know that secondhand smoke is more harmful than smoking?
All smoke from burning nicotine products contains harmful chemicals (toxins). Even nonsmokers inhaling other people’s smoke breathe in these toxins. Side stream smoke from the end of a cigarette, cigar or pipe is unfiltered. It has more harmful toxins than mainstream smoke that someone breathes out.
1. Problems with pregnancy
Secondhand smoke can harm babies even before they are born. Unfortunately, it can cause a baby to be born prematurely. Along with this could come the issue of a low birth weight. A woman could even have a miscarriage.
It can affect the mother’s health as well. Breathing, energy, and blood pressure levels can all be affected. It’s best if you avoid secondhand smoke from all sources if you’re pregnant.
2. Sick children
Unfortunately, children are the ones who suffer the most from being around smokers. They get sick more often, especially with infections. They also tend to wheeze and cough often.
Children can’t defend themselves against it since it’s usually the adults in their households that are smokers. Even if the adults smoke outside, they can bring the toxins back into the home with them (discussed further along). This leads to children living in a consistently toxic environment which can make and keep them sick.
3. Babies have complications
The toxins in smoke can cause quite a few complications in infants. For one, their breathing is severely affected from cigarette smoke. The smoke also increases their risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Research has shown that most infants who die from SIDS tend to have higher levels of nicotine and carcinogens in their lungs than those who die from other causes. Unless the infant is lighting up its own cigarette, the high levels of nicotine and carcinogens come from other people’s smoke.
4. Mental health problems
According to researchers associated with Harvard University, secondhand smoke can cause mental problems. They say it increases a child’s risk of neurological disorders by 50 percent. This includes problems like learning disabilities, depression, and behavior disorders.
In some cases, it can affect an adult’s mental health immediately. Their concentration can be broken and their short-term memory may not work as well. They could also suffer from depression and behavior issues like kids.
5. Immediate health problems
Some health problems are mentioned above, but did you know that some of these problems can happen immediately? Your blood pressure could rise, your oxygen levels can lower, and your heart may start working harder. You may even feel slightly light-headed.
This is extremely dangerous because in this case, your heart is working too hard. Secondhand smoke puts a lot of pressure on a person’s body and eventually, like any overworked machine, it will break.
6. Heart disease
Being around smokers is detrimental to your heart health. In fact, a person who is exposed to cigarette smoke often is up to 30% more likely to have heart disease than a smoker. Heart disease is the most well-known side effect of smoking as well as secondhand smoke.
Heart attacks are one of the most common heart conditions associated with exposure to cigarette smoke. The chemicals can cause these adverse impacts:
- Swollen arteries by irritating their lining.
- Endothelial dysfunction, a condition in which the arteries can’t dilate.
- A higher risk of blood clots, which can block an artery.
7. Eye problems
It’s crazy to think about, but secondhand smoke can actually cause eye problems. Researchers believe that the issues are due to exposure from childhood which can cause a condition known as choroidal thinning.
This condition is seen in many retinal diseases, but in the case of being exposed to cigarette smoke, it’s likely from age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Macular holes are another issue that can come from exposure to smoke from cigarettes. This is just what it sounds like – a hole in the macula (light-sensitive tissue in the retina area). This can cause blurry or distorted vision.
8. Sinus problems
It should be no surprise that secondhand smoke causes sinus problems. Breathing in all those toxins can irritate your nostrils, making your body think that it’s being invaded by allergens. For some people, the smoke might actually be an allergen.
Medically known as chronic rhinosinusitis, sinus problems affect one in six people. Being around smoke from cigarettes can increase your chance of suffering from chronic rhinosinusitis by up to 40 percent.
9. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
COPD is a term for a group of diseases that obstruct your breathing. These conditions are horrible and can diminish your quality of life dramatically. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are examples of diseases included in this group.
Exposure to irritating chemicals is what causes COPD and, in most cases, the irritating chemicals come from smoking. It’s important to take steps to prevent COPD because by the time you start showing symptoms, it’s too late to reverse it.
It’s one of the most preventable diseases but unfortunately also one of the most common because people don’t limit their contact with secondhand smoke.
10. It causes skin damage
The toxins in tobacco can cause significant damage to your skin. Examples are sagging skin and deep wrinkles. If you’re constantly exposed to secondhand smoke, you inhale all the toxins. This means you’re more likely to look worse than the smoker.
People who breathe in secondhand smoke are exposed to over 7,000 chemicals. Hundreds of these chemicals are toxic to humans and at least 70 of them, known as carcinogen, can cause cancer.
Cigarettes have been linked to cancer for decades but people continue to put their lives and others at risk. It’s unfortunate that non-smokers, even a person who has never smoked even once, can be at the same risk of lung cancer as smokers.
Types of cancer linked to secondhand smoke exposure:
- breast cancer
- nasal sinus cavity cancer
- nasopharyngeal cancer
- leukemia in kids
- lymphoma in kids
- brain tumors in kids
12. Thirdhand smoke
It’s a little known fact that secondhand smoke leads to thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is the smoke that saturates everything around it. It can get into clothing, furniture, hair, and more.
This lingering smoke still gives off toxic fumes. This essentially means that a place can become so saturated that simply living or working in it can become harmful to your health. This is especially bad for children because they become exposed during the most important time of development in their lives.
It’s easy to tell when someone is a smoker. You can smell the cigarette smoke on them, even if they smoke outside. You can also smell it on non-smokers who are around smokers often. Secondhand smoke is almost impossible to hide.
The scent tends to saturate everything from hair to clothing. The smell is just as strong on non-smokers as it is smokers. This means that kids of people who smoke may even be going to school smelling like cigarette smoke.
14. It can cause nicotine addiction
It makes sense that someone exposed to the toxins in secondhand smoke could become addicted to nicotine just like a smoker.
Research has shown that secondhand smoke affects the brain. It triggers the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) which are the same receptors that smoking triggers. Even short exposure can trigger these receptors.
Secondhand smoke is a killer. Each year, over 34,000 Americans die from heart disease due to secondhand smoke. Out of these, at least 7,300 are from lung cancer and at least 8,000 of them are from strokes.
With all the problems listed above, is it any surprise that exposure to cigarette smoke kills? The body can only handle so much and over time, all the problems can break it down.
How to Avoid Secondhand Smoke
It’s simple: Avoid being around people who are smoking, and try to convince those around you who smoke to quit. Anyone who does smoke should do so outside, as far away from other people as possible.
Your home is probably the most important place to keep smoke-free, especially if you have children. Keeping kids (and adults) far away from smoke can help lower their chances of having respiratory infections, severe asthma, cancer, and many other serious conditions.