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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Secondhand Smoke

September 08, 2011

Tobacco Cessation
Secondhand Smoke
Secondhand Smoke
When you smoke, you force the people who spend time with you to "smoke" too.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

When you quit smoking, you are doing something great for your own health. Equally rewarding is that fact that you're also doing something wonderful for the health of those around you, including family, friends and coworkers.
In essence, when you smoke, you force the people who spend time with you to "smoke" too. Nonsmokers who experience secondhand smoke on a regular basis can suffer from some of the same health problems that affect smokers:
  • Lung cancer (Risk is increased 20% to 30% from regular secondhand smoke exposure.)
  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Respiratory problems, including coughing and wheezing
  • Heart problems, including heart attack (Risk is increased 25% to 30%.)
  • Premature death
Every year, approximately 3,000 nonsmokers in the United States die of lung cancer as a result of secondhand smoke (sometimes referred to as environmental tobacco smoke).
And the problem is widespread. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine in 10 people have been exposed to secondhand smoke. Although secondhand smoke contains fewer of the carcinogens that affect smokers, many nonsmokers have measurable levels of nicotine — the primary ingredient in tobacco — in their blood.

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Children Are Particularly Vulnerable
Because a child's lungs do not fully develop until later in life, secondhand smoke can be particularly damaging in the young.
More than 40% of children in America live in a home with at least one smoker. Children exposed to secondhand smoke may develop a variety of health complications before they become teenagers. As babies, it is more likely that an infant exposed to secondhand smoke will die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Children exposed to secondhand smoke are also more prone to ear infections and respiratory problems, including asthma (more common and more severe in these children), bronchitis and pneumonia, than are children who do not live with a smoker. There are also more cases of tonsillitis among children exposed to secondhand smoke.
Children who live with a smoker visit doctors and emergency rooms more often than do children who live in a smoke-free environment. They require more hospitalization, and there is a higher rate of death during childhood for children regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. Regularly exposed children have a smaller lung size on average, by the end of their childhood. . In addition, children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves, so this unhealthy practice is passed from one generation to the next.
When you quit smoking, you'll be doing your children a favor.

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Pregnant Women Beware
A pregnant woman who smokes places her baby in grave danger. The nicotine in tobacco can enter the baby's bloodstream, increasing the mother's risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.
In addition, smoking can lead to premature birth, below-average weight at birth, poor lung development, asthma and respiratory infections in a newborn. Mothers who smoke put their children at higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Nicotine can also pass to a baby through breastfeeding.
If you are pregnant and want to have a healthy baby, avoid all tobacco products.

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