I have several patients who are nonsmokers. So they think. They don’t actively put a cigarette to their lips and smoke it, but if they’re living with someone, or are consistently around someone who smokes in their presence, I make a note in their chart as, second hand smoker.
That’s right. Did you know that second hand smokers are continuously exposed to about 25% of their smoking spouse/friend’s smoke? This percentage can make a significant difference in risk factors for lung cancer, and other pulmonary diseases. With this percentage, every time someone smokes around you it’s as if you, too, are actively smoking a few cigarettes a day!
It’s estimated that there are 125 million second hand smokers in the United States! If you’re like some of my patients who believe they are at lower risk for disease because they don’t actually put a cigarette up to their lips to smoke, I’d like to share with you some of the surprising facts about second-hand, and even third-hand, smoke.
What Does Second Hand Smoke Do?
There are over 4,000 chemicals in cigarette tobacco and its smoke! Of these, 250 are known to be harmful to your health and 50 of them are already known carcinogens! The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that the concentrations of these chemicals are potentially greater in second hand smoke than smoking a cigarette itself! Here’s what happens every time you are exposed to cigarette smoke, second or first hand:
- Destabilizes your heart and lung function: Breathing in smoke even for a short while, can put you at increased risk for heart and lung disease. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed that smoking definitively causes lung cancer.
- Increases Risk for Heart Attack or Asthma Attack: Your heart gets less oxygen when you breathe in smoke. This can trigger an asthma attack or a heart attack.
- Second Hand Smoke Increases SIDS risk: Infants exposed to second hand smoke are more likely to die of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) than previously thought.
- Second Hand Smoke Puts Children At Risk: Children who inhale second hand smoke consistently have a much higher risk for pneumonia and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. It can also cause chronic ear infections like otitis media.
- Causes Physical and Mental Growth Impairment in Children: Kids develop more slowly physically and mentally around second hand smoke. An adult can get up and walk out of a room when someone is smoking, a baby/young child cannot. They are the most vulnerable to the effects of “forced” smoke exposure.
- Causes Your Blood Platelets To Stick Together: Even short exposures to second hand smoke can cause your blood platelets to become sticky. This damages your blood vessels and decreases coronary blood flow reserves.
- Second Hand Smoke Affects Twice: Nonsmokers near someone else smoking breathes in second hand smoke twice. Once from the burning tip of the cigarette, and twice when the smoker exhales. They get all the toxic effects of smoking twice.
- Increases Risk for Gingivitis: If your significant other is a smoker, they are at high likelihood of getting gingivitis, a chronic inflammatory condition of their gums. This condition can also be passed to you during kissing! Smoking changes the pH of the mouth by decreasing saliva and drying out the mouth tissues. This sets the stage for gingivitis to occur. Smoking also depletes Vitamin C in the body, which helps prevent gingivitis and other inflammatory conditions.
What Is Third Hand Smoke?
People fail to realize that the environment they smoke in also absorbs smoke and all its toxins. These include things like couches, clothes, carpets, the smoker’s hair, etc. Nonsmokers, especially very young children, such as crawling infants, can absorb these toxins through their skin after touching them or putting them in their mouth. For example, a young child who both plays with his smoker-mother’s hair while they breast feed gets exposed to third hand smoke twice. Crawling around on carpets also exposes them, or playing on couches and chairs.
Third hand smoke contains chemicals, heavy metals and carcinogens such as:
- Hydrogen cyanide
How To Protect From Second and Third-Hand Smoke
Simple enough, you just need to stay away from people who are smoking. Here are a few examples of how:
- Smoking Ban In Public Places: Fortunately, now, most public places in the United States have recently instituted a ban on smoking in restaurants, nightclubs, businesses, public transport, etc, exposure to second hand smoke will decrease significantly.
- Just Say NO. If you’re married to, or otherwise live with a smoker, or who have friends who constantly want to smoke around you, especially in a car, ask them to quit for both your sakes! Educate them on the dangers of second and third hand smoke. Have them refrain from smoking in the house or the car. You might ask them to change their clothes, take a shower, wash their hair, and brush their teeth every time they smoke too. That ought to make them think twice about continuing to smoke around you!
- Public Housing: Unfortunately, smoking has not been banned in public housing. If you live in an apartment building or attached condominium, remember that smoke can travel through wall electrical sockets; heat and AC vent systems, doors, etc. Consider moving out if you do not want to be exposed to smoke from someone you don’t know and can’t see smoking!
- Protect a Child: If you know someone who smokes around a young child, please ask them to stop, and tell them about the dangers of exposing children, especially infants who must either just lay in cribs, or sit in car seats, and be exposed to their parents smoke constantly. There is a movement to make this issue considered child abuse enforceable by law.
As I tell my patient’s in no uncertain terms, smoking is a nasty habit that can cause a lot of illness. It seems kind of crazy, when you think about how much money people spend a week, month, or year, to put their own and other people’s health at risk by buying and smoking cigarettes. However, you don’t have to be the passive victim of a smoker, you DO have the right to not be exposed to toxic chemicals and noxious smoke. Just get as far away from it as possible.