The Dangers of Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke is the combination of smoke exhaled by a smoker and the smoke that comes out of the burning end of his or her tobacco product. Each time someone is exposed to secondhand smoke from traditional tobacco cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, they are inhaling more than 7,000 chemicals. Most of those chemicals are harmful and toxic and can affect health and development. Approximately 70 of those chemicals can cause cancer. Secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes, which comes in the form of aerosol, contains harmful chemicals (including nicotine) as well.

Repeated smoking stays in your home’s air, in curtains, bedding, carpeting, and furniture. That means your child can continue to be exposed to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke for a while.

Secondhand smoke is toxic for people of all ages. It’s even more dangerous for babies, young children, and teens because their brains and bodies are still developing. Unfortunately, babies and young children are exposed to secondhand smoke more than adults because they cannot leave the house or car where someone is smoking.

Path to improved health

If you smoke, stop. That is the only way to protect your health and limit your family’s exposure to secondhand smoke in their home or car. Fortunately, many states, counties, and cities have nonsmoking laws in public places to protect people from secondhand smoke.

Federal laws prohibit smoking in federal buildings, in buildings that are owned, rented, or leased by the executive branch of the federal government, or in buildings that house programs receiving federal funding. For example, this would apply to the U.S. government’s Head Start early childhood education programs. Smoking bans in cities, counties, and states vary. However, most laws are written and designed to protect people from secondhand smoke.

Your home and car: If you smoke, keep your home and car smoke free. The closer someone is to the secondhand smoke, the more chemicals he or she inhales. Smoke outdoors, far enough away from your home or car to prevent the smoke from blowing back inside. Smoke stays on your clothes. So wear a separate jacket when you are outside smoking. Also, leaving the car window down while you are smoking and driving is of no use. Do not allow friends, family, or your childcare provider to smoke inside your home when they are visiting.

Your child’s school and childcare: Local and state laws usually share a common interest in protecting children from secondhand smoke. If someone at your child’s school or childcare center is ignoring the no-smoking rule, notify the person in charge of that facility. Those laws ban smoking in schools, commercial daycare centers, hospitals, and in public buildings.

For private, in-home daycare centers, check the laws in your state. If there is no law prohibiting your private, in-home daycare provider from smoking, ask your provider not to smoke inside the home or car. If that is not an option, consider choosing a different provider.

Public places: You can reduce the amount of secondhand smoke your child inhales by making smart choices when you’re in public. For example, choose smoke-free restaurants and hotels. If you don’t have that option, sitting in the nonsmoking section does not offer any protection. It’s better to choose a different restaurant. Many hotels offer smoking and smoke-free rooms. Ask for a nonsmoking hotel room on a nonsmoking floor.

Some public places, such as sporting facilities, do not allow smoking inside the facility. However, be aware that many smokers light up near the exit. You may experience secondhand smoke as you are coming or going.

Continue to educate your child about the dangers of tobacco smoke. Emphasize the importance of never smoking. As your child gets older, continue to meet and get to know their friends. Ask your child if any of his or her friends smoke and continue to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Things to consider about secondhand smoke

Secondhand smoke can lead to a number of immediate and long-term illnesses for your child. Children who grow up in homes with a smoker have a higher level of cotinine in their bloodstream than those who grew up in a nonsmoking home. Cotinine is a product that forms after the smoke from tobacco products has entered the body. The younger your child is when they are exposed to secondhand smoke, the more serious the effects, including:

  • Frequent and chronic ear infections. Repeated ear infections may require surgery for ear tubes.
  • Newly diagnosed or worsened asthma.
  • Low birth weight, which leads to poor lung function.
  • A chronic cough, phlegm, wheezing, breathlessness, and repeated respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the somewhat unexplained reason a baby under the age of 1 dies in its sleep.
  • Lung cancer and heart disease in adults who have never smoked.

AAFP has established guidelines for doctors that provide smokers with guidance on how to stop smoking. AAFP also recommends that primary care doctors provide school-aged children and young adults with education or counseling to prevent tobacco use.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • My spouse or close family member smokes. Can you recommend tools and advice to stop smoking?
  • Is secondhand smoke less serious than smoking?
  • Do resources to stop smoking cigarettes also help to stop vaping?