The Asthma Center

Passive cigarette smoke exposure

Exposure to cigarette smoke in the environment is called involuntary or passive smoke. Passive or second hand cigarette smoke exposure ranks near or at the top of the asthma triggers list. Research is beginning to show passive smoke exposure's impact on the health of all people. Passive smoke is a combination of two types of smoke:

  • "Mainstream" smoke exhaled by the person who smokes
  • "Sidestream" smoke released from the burning tobacco

Mainstream cigarette smoke is a mixture of over 4,000 substances, 40 of which are known or suspected cancer-causing agents in humans. Sidestream smoke contains all of these same carcinogens, and many of them are more concentrated because the lower burning temperature of a smoldering cigarette burns up fewer carcinogens. In a report released in 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared "the widespread exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in the United States presents a serious and substantial public health impact." The EPA further concluded that, in adults, passive smoke is a Class A (known human) carcinogen "responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. non-smokers."

The most frightening statistics regarding passive smoke exposure are related to its effects on children. Children who live in a house where someone smokes have more respiratory infections and experience more frequent flares of asthma symptoms. Their symptoms are also more severe and last longer than those of children who live in a smoke-free home. The impact of passive smoke is worse during the first five years of life, when children spend most of their time with their parents. The more smokers there are in a household and the more they smoke, the greater the risk for children with asthma.

The following conditions are worsened by passive smoking:

  • Asthma
  • Wheezing
  • Croup or laryngitis
  • Cough or bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Flu (Influenza)
  • Ear infections
  • Middle ear fluid collections and blockage
  • Colds/upper respiratory infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Sore throats
  • Eye irritation
  • Crib deaths (SIDS)

Steps to Avoid Passive Smoke Exposure

  • Keep your home and automobile free from passive cigarette smoke.
  • Never smoke in your bedroom.
  • Have guests and family members smoke outside.
  • Consider asking family members to quit smoking.
  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about smoking cessation programs available in your community.
  • Sit in non-smoking sections of public areas (restaurants, airports, shopping malls, etc.). Visit restaurants and shopping centers that are smoke-free.

Contact your local nonprofit organization for more information.
Some resources that may be helpful are:

The American Lung Association

The American Cancer Society

The American Heart Association