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Is Secondhand Smoke Increasing Your Risk of Lung Cancer?

Do you have a close friend or family member who smokes? If the answer is yes, then you may be exposed to secondhand smoke. If you are near someone smoking, then you are likely inhaling the smoke and being exposed to the same harmful tobacco as the smoker.

“Secondhand smoke is a serious environmental hazard harming both children and adults alike,” said Ala Eddin Sagar, MD, an interventional pulmonologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona. We spoke with Dr. Sagar to discuss the risks from secondhand smoke.

Yes. Secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer

Dr. Sagar commented on the many dangers of secondhand smoke, including lung cancer. “Exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to ear infections, severe respiratory infections, asthma and harm to the heart and blood vessels. It can also increase the risk of lung cancer.” There are about 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke and studies have shown that about 150 of these are dangerous carcinogens or chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that lung cancer kills more than 150,000 people in the U.S. each year, and that lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke causes nearly 3,400 nonsmoker deaths per year. The CDC also estimates that secondhand smoke exposure has led to the deaths of about 2.5 million nonsmokers in the last half century.

How is secondhand smoke different from being a smoker?

Most people associate lung cancer with smokers. But, living or working near someone who smokes, and breathing in their tobacco smoke, can also cause lung cancer in nonsmokers.

You may have heard somewhere that inhaling secondhand smoke is like smoking without a filter. Dr. Sagar explained that the smokers themselves are most at risk. But, while it may be in a slightly lower concentration, “secondhand smokers inhale the same harmful substances that smokers do,” and are at an increased risk of developing lung cancer and other illnesses caused by tobacco smoke.

How to protect yourself from secondhand smoke

If someone close to you smokes, the best thing you can do is encourage them to quit. “Ask family members and friends who smoke to do so outside the house or car,” said Dr. Sagar . He also suggested seeking out restaurants, hotels and shops that are smoke-free.

Thirdhand smoke

It’s also important to be aware of smoking dangers that can linger around your house. These effects even have their own name: thirdhand smoke. Even if your loved one quits, harmful residue from smoking can still be found in your home. To protect yourself and your family, consider:

  • Having the fabrics in your home – curtains, rugs, blankets – cleaned or replaced.
  • Professionally cleaning your carpets and upholstery to rid them of the harmful toxins from smoking.
  • Having your air ducts cleaned and replacing your air conditioning filters.
  • Cleaning the walls and ceilings in your home or having them repainted.

Even if your family doesn’t smoke but you’re moving into a home where smokers once lived, these tips could be vital for reducing the risk of thirdhand smoke.

Protecting others from secondhand smoke if you smoke

“There is no substitute for quitting,” commented Dr. Sagar. “Without a doubt, the best thing you can do for your loved ones and for yourself is work to quit smoking altogether.” For many, the process of quitting is a journey. If quitting today is not feasible, you can still work to reduce the risk of lung cancer for those close to you.

Don’t smoke in your home, your car, at restaurants, etc. As mentioned in the previous section, creating smoke-free spaces is the best way to lower their risk. Even when they’re not home, or if you’re driving alone, respecting these smoke-free spaces will reduce the risk of thirdhand smoke for you and others.

Screening for lung cancer

“At this time, there is no specific screening indicated for those exposed to secondhand smoke,” noted Dr. Sagar. “But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. Our recommendation is to maintain regular checkups with your primary care physician which include monitoring the health of your lungs.” In the case that your doctor believes lung cancer is a concern, you may be prescribed a lung cancer screening, which includes a CT scan of your chest.

Know the facts about lung cancer

“I’m not old enough to be at risk for lung cancer.”
“I’ve been exposed to smoke for years. It’s too late to lower my risk.”

Lung cancer is too serious a disease to give up on lowering your risk, at any age. Young and old, cancer can appear suddenly and change your life and the lives of your loved ones. Lung cancer isn’t the only risk for those affected by secondhand smoke. They are also more likely to experience heart disease, stroke, and chronic lung disease including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Learn the facts and make changes today to lower your risk of lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases. If you’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke, contact your health care provider to help evaluate your risk for lung cancer.

To learn more about the dangers of smoking and lung cancer, check out these related articles.

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