Secondhand Smoke Basics

The Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke

Infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke.
Infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

The big question is: How exactly does secondhand smoke affect your body? In this section, we will detail the various health problems that can be caused by secondhand smoke -- from heart disease and cancer to asthma and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans. While it can be brought on by many factors, such as diet and lack of exercise, secondhand smoke also can be part of the equation. According to the American Lung Association, passive smoking is responsible for anywhere from 35,000 to 62,000 cardiovascular-related deaths each year. In addition, nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are 25 percent more likely to have coronary heart diseases than nonsmokers who are not exposed to secondhand smoke.

Exposure to smoke thickens the blood by increasing the production of red blood cells. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of clotting and strokes. Essentially, any activity that limits the amount of oxygen entering the bloodstream forces the heart to work harder to circulate the oxygen it does have. Furthermore, increased blood platelet activity can damage the walls of the arteries, thereby raising blood pressure and adding even more stress to the heart.


Cancer is the second-most common cause of death among people under the age of 85. Secondhand smoke has been linked to several types of cancer, including:

Lung cancer. According the National Cancer Institute, there are approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year of nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke. Actually, secondhand smoke is the third-leading cause of lung cancer, behind active smoking and radon gas. Lung cancer kills more women every year than breast cancer, and it is the leading cause of premature death among men.

Nasal sinus cancer. Similar to lung cancer in that it is a respiratory illness, nasal sinus cancer is thought to be caused by the formaldehyde found in secondhand smoke. Though nasal sinus cancer is much less common than lung cancer, it can be a devastating disease because the areas affected, such as the nose, are so visible.

There has been no conclusive evidence to link secondhand smoke to other types of cancer, such as breast or bladder cancer. However, many of the substances believed to cause these types of cancer are found in secondhand smoke. As more studies arise citing sidestream smoke as a factor in other forms of cancer, it seems likely that conclusive evidence will arrive.

Believe it or not, secondhand smoke even can cause ear problems. Believe it or not, secondhand smoke even can cause ear problems.
Believe it or not, secondhand smoke even can cause ear problems.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Asthma and Other Respiratory Illnesses

Let's face it: If you are a nonsmoker with asthma who lives with a smoker, you are courting frequent asthma attacks. Any attempts to asthma-proof your home are virtually worthless if you are constantly exposed to secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoke is a known asthma trigger.

In a broader sense, secondhand smoke is linked to just about any condition that involves breathing. From pneumonia and sinusitis to coughs and post-nasal drip, exposure to secondhand smoke can irritate and aggravate your throat and lungs. Even the ears are not safe because of their close ties to the sinuses. The Eustachian tube that connects the nose to the middle ear can easily become infected from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Pregnant mothers exposed to secondhand smoke run a higher risk of having a baby with a low birth weight, but the dangers don't end there. Involuntary smoking has also been shown to cause SIDS. According to the American Cancer Society, as many as 35 percent of all SIDS deaths could be due to secondhand smoke.

The effects of secondhand smoke are causes for grave concern. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. In the next section, we will tell you how much secondhand smoke is too much and how to minimize the risks.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.