What is second-hand smoke?

Second-hand smoke is the mixture of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe and the exhaled fumes of the smoker. Interestingly, about two-thirds of smoke from a cigarette is not inhaled by the person smoking it, but is released in the air around them.

Among the over 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke there are 70 known carcinogens. Second-hand smoke exposes you to the same harmful chemicals as what is inhaled by the smoker – chemicals such as nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and heavy metals.

Effects of second-hand smoke exposure

Many of the chemicals in second-hand smoke can cause cancer or can contribute to other health problems.

Each year in Canada, more than 800 non-smokers die because of second-hand smoke. Even after only 8 to 20 minutes of being around second-hand smoke, a non-smoker's heart rate and blood pressure can increase, and their heart's oxygen supply may be reduced.

Non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke are at higher risk of dying of coronary artery disease or lung cancer. Exposure to second-hand smoke also increases a non-smoker's risk of all sorts of other cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and cancer of the sinuses, brain, breast, liver, and throat.

Children are more susceptible to the dangerous effects of second-hand smoke because they breathe at a faster rate than adults and their lungs and immune system are less developed. Children exposed to second-hand smoke are at higher risk of developing a number of illnesses such as coughing, wheezing, asthma, ear infection, and lung disease, and are at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Additionally, children whose parents smoke are twice as likely to become smokers themselves.

Second-hand smoke taken in by pregnant women is also very harmful to unborn babies. Nicotine in the bloodstream of the mother can decrease blood flow to the baby, affecting their heart, lungs, digestive system, and central nervous system. Carbon monoxide can also slow the baby's growth and lead to low birth weight.

Second-hand smoke is also a major source of air pollution. In fact, the cancer risk from exposure to second-hand smoke is much greater than the combined risk of all other regulated air contaminants.

How to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke

There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke. The best thing to do is to remove the source of smoke. So, if you smoke, quit. It is the single best way to protect yourself and those around you.

Reduce the heath risks of second-hand smoke by making your home and car smoke-free environments. A smoke-free environment means not smoking inside the home or car. Since smoke can easily seep through closed doors and cling onto fabrics, this rule needs to be applied at all times in all areas of your residence and vehicle. Cigarette smoke cannot be completely cleared by opening a window or using special fans. Air filtration systems also cannot completely remove all the gases and small particles of harmful chemicals in second-hand smoke.

Take these steps to help you establish a smoke-free environment for your family:

  1. List the benefits. Write down the reasons for keeping your home and car smoke-free.
  2. Share your decision. Share this decision with family members, gather their input, and persuade those who may be uncomfortable with the idea.
  3. List potential challenges. Discuss potential challenges that you might face with your family members and come up with solutions and strategies together. For example, what should you do if you are attempting to quit but feel the urge to smoke?
  4. Remove all ashtrays from the home and car. Removing these smoking supplies can serve as a constant reminder to not smoke inside the home.
  5. Set up a designated area for smokers outside the home. It's important to realize that smoke can still seep into your home through your doors and your clothes, but smoking outside and away from doors and windows will reduce your family's exposure to second-hand smoke.
  6. Set up a date and take a pledge. Select a date to go completely smoke-free in your home and take the pledge together as a family.
  7. Inform all guests that your home and car are smoke-free zones. It is important to maintain your decision even with guests who might smoke. It may be a good idea to inform them of your family's decision ahead of time.

If you experience a setback, discuss with your family if changes need to me made that will help keep your home smoke-free. If you run into challenges that you don't seem to be able to resolve, contact your doctor for help and support.

Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team