Don’t be passive about smoking: The dangers of secondhand smoking

By now everybody should be fully aware of the dangers of firsthand smoking. Medical Specialists Pharmacy have covered them in great depths during 2012 such as here and here. What we have not reported on yet in detail, is how second hand and even thirdhand smoking can negatively impact a person’s health.

Secondhand smoking (SHS) may be also described as ‘passive’ or ‘involuntary’ smoking, as it occurs when somebody breathes in another person’s cigarette smoke. SHS causes many of the same conditions and diseases that direct smoking can result in, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, a brain tumour, asthma, dementia and numerous other problems. It is actually estimated that in the UK alone a staggering 11,000 people die each year from heart disease, cancers and strokes that are directly connected to the damage brought on by SHS.

The major health risks involved with SHS were the main driving force behind the government’s 2007 nationwide smoking ban, prohibiting anybody from smoking in all public spaces including pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, shops and many other popular places. When the ban first came into effect five years ago, opponents to the law raised fears that it would lead to an increase of smoking inside the home and thus it would cause children to be more exposed to SHS.

However it seems that these fears were unnecessary. In the five years since the ban came into effect in the UK, there has been plenty of evidence to show that people are taking the subject of smoking seriously in comparison to previous years. Some argue than the ban of smoking in public spaces has opened people’s eyes to the massive dangers of breathing in cigarette smoke and many parents are actually putting in extra effort, to protect their children from inhaling in the smoke.

Scotland was the first country in the UK to be hit with a smoking ban, which came into effect in March 2006. A study carried out by Glasgow University found that there was a 15% drop in the number of children with asthma being admitted to hospital, one of the main health conditions that is both caused and then triggered by cigarette smoke. The benefits that have been seen by the various smoking bans across UK countries is something Medical Specialists looked at earlier in the year.

So who is mainly at risk from the after-effects of breathing in SHS? Basically the answer is everybody and there are absolutely no ‘safe’ levels of secondhand smoke. But there are certain groups who are more vulnerable and may develop serious health problems from it. For example, babies and newborns are a particularly major high-risk group. If a woman smokes during her pregnancy this means the unborn baby will receive less oxygen and will have more carbon monoxide in their bloodstream.

Other problems that could therefore arise include the baby having a low birth weight,  miscarriage, premature birth or sudden infant death syndrome; whereby babies of mothers who smoke are twice as likely to die from this compared to babies carried by a non-smoker. Children who are exposed to SHS also face suffering with persistent colds, ear infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, and severe asthma. SHS can severely impact lung growth in children and can then cause them to cough, wheeze, and suffer with breathlessness.

It is not just babies and newborns though who are impacted by the smoking of others. Only last week, researchers at Northumbria University claimed that the results of a study they had conducted, showed that non-smokers  who breathe in second hand smoke on a regular basis, could suffer from memory problems. The researchers who conducted the study compared a group of current smokers with two different groups of non-smokers; those often exposed to SHS and those who weren’t. The exposed group either lived with somebody who smoked or spent time with smokers, for example at designated smoking areas at work, etc.  And this was for around 25 hours each week for an average of four and a half years. The groups were then tested on time-based memory and event-based memory. Worryingly it was found that the non-smokers who were exposed to SHS actually forgot nearly 20% more in memory tests compared with those who were not regularly exposed. It was even worse for the current smokers, with this group forgetting 30% more than people who were not exposed to SHS.

If all the above was not a big enough cause for concern, there is also the issue of ‘thirdhand’ smoke, sometimes also known as residual tobacco smoke. Thirdhand smoke might be a term that some people have never even heard of or are not familiar with, but it is a subject that does need considering. This is a term that used for tobacco residue that lingers, sticking to things such as walls, carpets, furniture, clothing and other surfaces. Although smokers going outside a building to designated smoking areas will reduce secondhand smoking, the residue clings to their clothing and skin and follow them back inside.

Young children and babies are most susceptible at ingesting these cancer-causing toxins as they are more likely to be in a closer proximity, crawling/playing on the floor and tend to put things into their mouths. Although no specific cancer-risks have been properly measured to get an idea of the magnitude of the issue and the risks of thirdhand smoke are likely small compared to SHS, many people are now appreciating the possible dangers. In fact in October 2011, Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, made the news after it was revealed that they would ban thirdhand smoke from July 2012. Therefore employees whose clothing smell of smoke will be forbidden from being at work. The ban came about primarily because of the threat of thirdhand smoking, on the developing brains of infants and small children.

Now you know about just some of the dangers that both second and thirdhand smoke can cause to people, it could be time to consider about making positive changes today, to vastly improve the health of you and your loved ones. It might be sometimes impossible to eliminate your exposure, but there are steps you can take to drastically reduce the threat to an absolutely minimal level. Alternatively, if you are a smoker and worried about those around you, now might be the point to get on board with next months ‘Stoptober’ campaign,  to try and quit for good or at least consider the improvements you could make to protect the health of others.

Don’t allow smoke into your house. If you, a friend or family member wants to smoke, go outside to do it. Explain this policy to your guests when they enter your home and do not put out any ashtrays around the house.

. Don’t allow smoke into your car. If you or a passenger wishes to smoke, stop at a place where you can they smoke outside of the vehicle.

. If a family member smokes, offer your full support and encourage them to quit. Be gentle yet firm.

. Only choose childcare facilities that operate with a no smoking policy. Also let babysitters know in advance that you house is a smoke-free zone.

. If you are at a nightclub or pub with a friend who smokes, do not accompany them outside when they decide to have a cigarette.

. Open windows and use fans to keep your home ventilated.

. If you are going away on holiday, request strictly a non-smoking room and other such facilities.

. If you smoke and are thinking of quitting, try effective smoking cessation medication such as Champix.

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