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Secondhand Smoke

Exposure to the toxins in secondhand smoke can cause asthma, cancer and other serious problems. Know what you're breathing — and consider practical steps for clearing the air.


You don't smoke because you understand the dangers — but what about secondhand smoke? Secondhand smoke causes or contributes to various health problems, from cardiovascular disease to cancer. Understand what's in secondhand smoke, and consider ways to protect yourself and those you love from secondhand smoke.

What's in secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke — also known as environmental tobacco smoke — includes the smoke that a smoker exhales (mainstream smoke) and the smoke that comes directly from the burning tobacco product (sidestream smoke). Secondhand smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals, including:

  • Benzene
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Chromium
  • Cyanide
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Polonium

The dangerous particles in secondhand smoke can linger in the air for hours. Breathing secondhand smoke for a short time can irritate your lungs and reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood. Prolonged or repeated exposure to secondhand smoke is all the more dangerous. And it isn't just the smoke that's a concern. The residue that clings to a smoker's hair and clothing, as well as cushions, carpeting and other goods — sometimes referred to as thirdhand smoke — also can pose risks, especially for children.


How risky is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke causes or contributes to serious health problems, including:

  • Lung disease. Asthma, bronchitis and other chronic lung ailments can be triggered or aggravated by exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Heart disease. Secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart attack and other heart problems. Secondhand smoke also damages blood vessels, interferes with circulation and increases the risk of blood clots.
  • Cancer. Secondhand smoke is a known risk factor for lung cancer. Some research also suggests a link between secondhand smoke and various other types of cancer.

Secondhand smoke poses additional risks for children, who are especially vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke. Problems include:

  • Low birth weight. Exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy increases the risk of low birth weight.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke increases the risk of SIDS — whether exposure occurs during pregnancy or after birth.
  • Infections. Children who live with smokers are more likely to develop middle ear infections (otitis media) and lower respiratory tract infections.

Secondhand smoke also causes chronic coughing, phlegm and wheezing, as well as eye and nose irritation.

How can secondhand smoke be avoided?

With planning, you can reduce or eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke. Start with these simple steps:

  • Don't allow smoking in your home. If family members or guests want to smoke, ask them to step outside. Don't rely on an air conditioner, ventilation system or an open window to clear the air.
  • Don't allow smoking in your vehicle. If a passenger must smoke on the road, stop at a rest stop for a smoke break outside the car.
  • Insist that smoking restrictions be enforced in your workplace. Even powerful ventilation fans don't effectively remove secondhand smoke from the air.
  • Choose smoke-free care facilities. If you take your children to a child care provider, choose one with a no-smoking policy. The same goes for aging loved ones. If they live in a long term care facility, make sure it's smoke-free.
  • Patronize businesses with no-smoking policies. Many restaurants and other establishments are entirely smoke-free. Reinforce these no-smoking policies by telling the management that you appreciate the healthy air.
  • Keep your distance from smokers. If you must share space with people who are smoking, sit as far away from them as possible.

If you have a partner or other loved one who smokes, offer support and encouragement to stop smoking. The entire family will reap the benefits.

By Mayo Clinic Staff






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