(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Understanding the Effects of Secondhand Smoke

What is Secondhand Smoke?

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By Becky Dotson

12 min read

There was a time when smoking seemed like the cool thing to do, and many people did it. As we’ve learned over the years about the harmful effects of smoking, lots of people have kicked the habit. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 15 percent of Americans still light up. While they are harming themselves, they’re also harming anyone around them while smoking. 

Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke is any smoke you involuntarily inhale from tobacco that is being smoked by others. There are two types of secondhand smoke – mainstream smoke and sidestream smoke. Mainstream smoke is the smoke that is exhaled by the smoker. Sidestream smoke is the smoke coming from the lighted end of a cigarette, cigar, pipe, or tobacco burning in a hookah. So, you can inhale secondhand smoke from both the person smoking and what they are smoking. 

When someone is smoking a cigarette, cigar, or pipe, most of the smoke goes into the air around them. That means if you are close by, you’re breathing in more smoke than the smoker. It’s estimated that more than 23 million Americans have been exposed to secondhand smoke.

The smoke that comes from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes is filled with thousands of harmful chemicals. Nicotine, ammonia, arsenic, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde are just a few of the ones that cause danger to humans. Many of the chemicals in secondhand smoke are also known to cause cancer. The longer you are exposed, the more likely you are to develop problems from it.

The U.S. Surgeon General issued a first of its kind report in 1964 on the dangers of smoking. Since then, it’s believed that more than 2.5 million non-smoking Americans have died because they breathed in secondhand smoke.

You want to avoid secondhand smoke as much as you can, but if you’re a relatively healthy adult, a one-time exposure at a bar or casino may not have any negative impact on your long-term health. Just like each person is different, your body’s reaction to secondhand smoke will likely be different than other people’s.

On average, though, you don’t have to have a significant exposure period to secondhand smoke before it can cause problems or damage to your body. According to the Cleveland Clinic studies show your arteries can become less flexible in as little as five minutes. In as little as 30 minutes, nicotine can be detected in your bloodstream – even though you’re not the one smoking. Secondhand smoke is that powerful and that dangerous.

That information alone tells us anyone is at risk for adverse health consequences from secondhand smoke. But someone who has pre-existing lung or heart problems or conditions is at greater risk from secondhand smoke. If you are suffering from a respiratory infection like bronchitis or pneumonia or are just a seasonal allergy sufferer, exposure can cause you more trouble. Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD sufferers also have a greater risk of adverse effects from secondhand smoke. People with lung cancer can decrease their chances of survival from regular secondhand smoke exposure.

Pregnant women and small children are also at a greater risk of developing issues from secondhand smoke. Children are still growing, and smoke can cause problems with that development. Pregnant women can cause harm to themselves and their unborn baby by breathing in secondhand smoke. And if you live with a smoker, your risk of trouble increases with secondhand smoke. 

One group you may not think about being at high risk is service industry workers. But people who make a career of being restaurant servers and workers or bartenders have an increased risk of secondhand smoke problems. Restaurants and bars that allow patrons to smoke make exposure unavoidable for those who work there.

When a woman is pregnant, she does everything she can to protect herself and her unborn child. Avoiding secondhand smoke is as important as eating a healthy diet and regular visits to your doctor. Exposure to secondhand smoke can put you and your baby at risk.

Significant exposure can cause miscarriage or premature birth, low birth weight, and learning or behavioral issues for your child. The best thing you can do if you’re pregnant is to avoid secondhand smoke altogether. If loved ones smoke, ask them not to smoke around you. As opposed to other situations, that request will often be taken seriously and followed if it comes from a woman who is pregnant. You will also not want to visit homes where smokers live or public places that allow smoking.

Secondhand smoke is especially concerning and harmful to children. Because children’s bodies are still developing, regular exposure to secondhand smoke can hinder their lung growth. It can cause ear and respiratory infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, and more severe attacks in children who have asthma. 

According to the American Lung Association secondhand smoke causes between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in children 18 months old and younger every year. More than 7,500 of those children will end up in the hospital. Secondhand smoke is also believed to be responsible for more than 400 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) deaths every year in the United States.

A child’s health is likely not the only thing affected by secondhand smoke. The American Nonsmokers’ Right Association contributes some cognitive impairment and behavioral problems in children to secondhand smoke exposure.

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Sometimes, secondhand smoke’s most immediate effect is the cough that results when you breathe it in for the first time. It can irritate your eyes, cause you to sneeze and feel short of breath. But while that takes your breath away, a restrictive feeling may be your first reaction, and it’s certainly not the only thing the smoke can do to your body.

Breathing in secondhand smoke has an immediate effect on your blood and blood vessels. Even the briefest exposure can cause your blood platelets to become stickier and damage the lining of your blood vessels. 

Secondhand smoke interferes with your heart, blood, and vascular system’s normal function. If you already have coronary issues or are genetically predisposed to them, secondhand smoke exposure can lead to and increase your risk of a heart attack. Even if you don’t have a pre-existing heart condition, regular exposure at home or work can increase your risk of severe health problems by 25 percent or more. Secondhand smoke accounts for more than 30,000 premature deaths from heart disease in the United States every year.

Lung cancer is currently the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. And secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers. More than 140,000 people die each year in the U.S. from lung cancer. At least 7,000 of those deaths are nonsmokers who developed lung cancer because of secondhand smoke. 

The CDC says being exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increases your risk of lung cancer by 20-30 percent. That’s because you are inhaling many of the same cancer-causing agents as the smoker. Of the thousands of harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke – as many as 70 of them are known cancer causers. And it’s not just lung cancer. Secondhand smoke can increase your risk of brain, bladder, stomach, breast, and several other types of cancer. Damage to your cells from secondhand smoke can put the cancer process in motion with even brief exposure.

If heart disease and lung cancer aren’t enough, secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of clotting in your blood, leading to stroke. Secondhand smoke exposure raises your risk of stroke by 20 or 30 percent. It’s believed more than 8,000 Americans die every year from a stroke caused by prolonged secondhand smoke exposure. 

Secondhand smoke can lead to chronic, long-term conditions, as well. High blood pressure, lower levels of LDL (good) cholesterol, COPD, emphysema, and asthma, as well as pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, or scarring in your lungs, can all be attributed to secondhand smoke.

As we’ve noted, a healthy individual can be severely affected by secondhand smoke. So, as you might expect, people who have existing, underlying conditions can be put at an even greater health risk by secondhand smoke. Lung cancer patients should avoid secondhand smoke at all costs. It lowers their chance of survival and shortens their time between treatment and cancer growth.

Anyone who has suffered a heart attack or has existing coronary artery issues should also avoid secondhand smoke. It has been linked to chest pain onset and is blamed for as many as 37,000 heart disease deaths in nonsmoking Americans each year.

Chances are good you’ve never been examined for secondhand smoke exposure. It usually only comes up when you develop a disease, condition, or problem that could have resulted from long-term or regular exposure.

However, you can measure exposure to secondhand smoke in your home and your system. Professionals can test the air inside your home or business for chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Doctors can also test you. They check your salvia, urine, or blood for cotinine. When nicotine enters your body, it creates the chemical cotinine. If the level is high, chances are there are high levels of other chemicals from secondhand smoke in your body.

Unless that test is talked about or specifically requested, your doctor may use lung function testing to measure damage or identify breathing conditions like asthma, emphysema, or COPD.

Unfortunately, you can’t go to the doctor and tell them you’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke and expect them to do something about it. Trying your best to stay away from secondhand smoke is the only ‘treatment’ for it. The only thing your doctor can do is treat specific symptoms or diseases that result from long-term exposure, like prescribing medication for high blood pressure or an inhaler for asthma.

If secondhand smoke wasn’t enough to worry about, there’s also something experts call thirdhand smoke. It’s a relatively new concept first introduced in 2006, but it can be just as concerning as secondhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is what is left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke. Long after smoking has stopped, thirdhand smoke sticks to all kinds of surfaces, including furniture, curtains, clothes, walls, bedding, carpets, vehicles, and even dust. It can last for months on surfaces and for up to a year and a half on fabric after the last cigarette was smoked.

Just like secondhand smoke, thirdhand smoke can cause health problems. Coughing, asthma, and respiratory tract infections are common issues that come from thirdhand smoke.

As you might expect, getting rid of second and thirdhand smoke can be difficult. The first thing you’ll want to do is clear the air in your home. An air purifier is always a sound investment for any airborne particles, but you’ll want to get one that runs with a HEPA filter and is good at removing smoke from the air. 

If you live with someone who has recently quit smoking, you will also want to give your home a deep cleaning.  Thorough cleaning in the house to get rid of smoke can consist of short and long-term projects that can take days, weeks, and even months. When you start your cleaning, make sure you wear gloves and clothes you don’t mind throwing away when you’re finished. Doing so allows you to cut down on the possibility of contaminating another surface or area.

You’ll want to clean the following areas of your home:

  • Walls and ceilings
  • Carpets and floors
  • All furniture surfaces
  • All counter surfaces
  • Curtains and drapes
  • All clothing
  • Blinds and windows
  • Pictures, art, and decorative pieces

You may not be able to reverse the full effects of secondhand smoke, but if you have spent significant time being exposed to it, there are ways you can help your body do some repair from the potential damage. 

The first recommendation is to get an air purifier. Many of these products can filter out 99.97 percent of harmful airborne particles, and your lungs will thank you for that. Improving the air quality in your home is a simple and solid first step.

We often don’t think about the filters for our heat and air systems, but change them now and regularly. It will help your heating and cooling system run more efficiently and effectively and help ensure the air circulating in your home is cleaner.

Get rid of the candles and air fresheners. They certainly make the rooms in your home smell better, but they can also irritate your breathing and lungs.

Get plenty of fresh air by spending time outside. It’s a cheap and easy way to help you breathe better.

How many times have you been told to eat a healthy diet? There’s a reason it keeps coming up. It’s one of the best ways to achieve a healthy body and a healthy life.

Exercise! It helps your heart and your lungs stay healthy. So, strive for 150 minutes of exercise each week.

The best way to reduce your risk of secondhand smoke is to avoid people who smoke or places that allow it. If you have a loved one who smokes, ask them not to smoke in your car or home. If you visit them, try to stay in well-ventilated areas, outside or ask to open the windows or run the air purifier if they have one. It can certainly be a challenging request to make, but it is worth your health benefits.

When going out, don’t frequent restaurants or bars that allow smoking. Eating at a restaurant or enjoying spending time with your friends at a bar can result in hours of exposure. The longer you are around the smoke, the higher the chance of a negative impact, especially if you already suffer from breathing problems. If you choose a place that allows smoking, try to take advantage of the outdoor sitting area if the weather permits. It will allow you an opportunity to enjoy your time with friends or family, get some fresh air, and minimize your secondhand smoke exposure.

Staying away from secondhand smoke entirely is nearly impossible. You will occasionally run into the person who is taking a smoke break on the street. Just be sure to make a wide path of at least five feet or more around them to avoid as much smoke as possible. If you can, cross the street and walk on the other side to avoid it altogether. The few extra steps and minutes will be worth it.

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Vaping has become popular and has been seen by some as a ‘better’ alternative to smoking. But as more time passes, the dangers of vaping, particularly in teenagers and young adults, is becoming more apparent. Some pulmonologists believe secondhand vapors from vaping are just as dangerous as secondhand smoke from cigarettes. 

Even though it’s not technically smoke, you are still inhaling the dangerous chemicals from the vape. Nicotine, formaldehyde, heavy metals, and benzene (found in car exhausts) are all found in vape juices. The vaping industry isn’t fully regulated, so there’s a chance you are breathing in harmful chemicals that experts don’t even know about or fully understand the effect they have on the human body. So, it’s best to stay away from vaping and the secondhand aerosol that comes from them.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has labeled secondhand smoke exposure as a common public health hazard. But it is also believed it is entirely preventable.  

As long as people smoke, there will be a concern about secondhand smoke. But exposure can continue to be reduced by banning smoking in all enclosed public places and workplaces. In essence, smoking should never be allowed inside. More and more businesses and public places are setting aside outside smoking areas for smokers, but you will still risk secondhand smoke if you are nearby.

On a personal level, smokers can protect their families by adopting smoke-free rules in their cars and homes and lighting up outside away from their loved ones.

Laws continue to change in states across the country and at the federal level to try and cut down on exposure to secondhand smoke and make the air we breathe cleaner. Ultimately, smoking is a thing of the past, and it is up to all of us personally to do what we can to avoid the dangers of secondhand smoke for ourselves and our loved ones.