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How Harmful Is Second Hand Smoke?
Dr Kumaresh Krishnamoorthy
What is second-hand smoke?
Secondhand smoke is the smoke from a burning cigarette, pipe or cigar. It is also the smoke exhaled by a smoker. When a person smokes near you, you breathe in the second-hand smoke.

Also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), second hand smoke can be recognized easily by its distinctive odor. ETS contaminates the air and is retained in clothing, curtains and furniture. Cigarettes produce about 12 minutes of smoke, and the smoker may inhale only 30 seconds of smoke from his/her cigarette. The rest of the smoke lingers in the air for non-smokers and smokers to breathe. Second-hand smoke contains more than 4000 chemicals. Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, and many of us breathe this in without much choice, in public places, around doorways of buildings and while at work. Even at homes or in cars, when a person we know smokes, everyone else inside inhales the second-hand smoke. So smokers harm not only their own selves, but also those around them.

The following are some of the chemicals found in second hand smoke:
  • carbon monoxide (found in your car’s exhaust)
  • ammonia (found in window cleaners)
  • cadmium (found in batteries)
  • arsenic (found in rat poison)
Many people find ETS unpleasant, annoying, and irritating to the eyes and nose. ETS is known to cause headaches, coughing and wheezing, nausea and dizziness. You are also more likely to get colds and the flu if you are subject to ETS. Breathing in second-hand smoke can also trigger asthma attacks and increase your chances of getting bronchitis and pneumonia. And that’s not all, if you have been exposed to second-hand smoke for a fairly long time, you are more likely to develop heart problems, breathing problems and lung cancer. Pregnant women, newborn infants and children are particularly vulnerable to ETS.

The effect of secondhand smoke on the fetus and the newborn
It is a known fact that maternal, fetal and placental blood flow change when pregnant women smoke. Smoking during pregnancy causes birth defects such as cleft lip or cleft palate. Mothers who smoke experience decreased lactation, and their babies have a lower birth weight. It is now known that mothers exposed to secondhand smoke are also at risk. If you inhale secondhand smoke while you are pregnant, you are more likely to:
  • miscarry
  • deliver early
  • experience problems during labour
Secondhand smoke can harm babies before and after they are born. Several chemicals in secondhand smoke can pass into your baby's blood, affecting how your unborn baby develops. Pregnant women inhaling secondhand smoke are also run a higher risk of dying during childbirth or dying of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). If you’re breastfeeding, keep in mind that some chemicals from secondhand smoke are passed directly from breast milk to the baby.

Effect on older children
Children are more at risk of becoming ill than adults when they breathe in secondhand smoke. This is because their bodies are still growing. They breathe faster than adults, so they absorb more harmful chemicals. Moreover, the immune system of children that protects them from illness is not yet fully developed, which makes them more vulnerable.

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