Secondhand Smoke and You

Learn how secondhand smoke can affect you and those around you.“You mean that my child’s cough is from asthma? No one in our family has asthma.”

“What do you mean I have emphysema? I have never smoked.”

As a pulmonologist, these are questions I hear on a regular basis. Patients and their families are often confused as to how they developed these conditions. The answer often is secondhand smoke.

According to the Surgeon General, between 1999 and 2002 40-50% of nonsmokers were exposed to significant amounts of secondhand smoke. Exposure was defined as at least 1 hour of smoke daily for a year. This exposure translates to 22 million children under the age of 11, 18 million teens between the ages of 12 and 20, and 86 million adults greater than 20 years old.

While the above numbers are interesting, what does this all mean? Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 different chemicals, of which over 50 have been known to cause cancer. Among these are:

  • Benzene – a known carcinogen also found in gasoline.
  • Formaldehyde – a known carcinogen also used as embalming fluid.
  • Hydrogen cyanide - a highly toxic gas used in chemical weapons and pesticides.
  • Carbon monoxide - a poisonous gas found in car exhaust.

Secondhand smoke exposure will increase your risk of lung cancer and heart disease by 20-30%. About 3,000 people will die each year from lung disease and 46,000 will die from heart disease because of their exposure.

Children are also significantly affected. About 150,000 to 300,000 children yearly will suffer respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, and of these, 5-10% will be hospitalized. Over 40% of children presenting to the hospital with severe asthma attacks live with smokers.

Smoking during pregnancy also carries other enhanced risks. There is a marked increased incidence of:

  • SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)
  • Low birth weight babies
  • Premature delivery
  • Development of ADHD

What can you do about it? If you are not a smoker try to convince those around you to quit. Provide incentive to stop. Give them the information they need to see the damage that they are doing to their children and to you. Most of all do not be an enabler. Do not buy them cigarettes. If all else fails have them smoke outdoors. While this option is not the best, it does provide some benefit to those living in the same house. If you are a smoker, make a plan to stop smoking and stick to it! It will not only benefit you, but your loved ones as well.

Written by: Vlassi Baktidy, M.D.

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