Asthma and Secondhand Smoke
Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways of the lungs. During an asthma attack, airways (tubes that carry air to your lungs) become swollen, making it hard to breathe.1,2 As the walls of the airways swell, they narrow, and less air gets in and out of the lungs. Cells in the airways can make more mucus (a sticky, thick liquid) than usual, which can make breathing even harder.2
Symptoms of an asthma attack include:1
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Tightness or pain in the chest
Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate, or serious—and even life threatening.1
If you have asthma, an asthma attack can occur when something irritates your airways and "triggers" an attack. Your triggers might be different from other people’s triggers.3
Tobacco smoke is one of the most common asthma triggers. Tobacco smoke—including secondhand smoke—is unhealthy for everyone, especially people with asthma.3 Secondhand smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles that includes:4
- Smoke from a burning cigarette, cigar, or pipe tip
- Smoke that has been exhaled (breathed out) by someone who smokes
Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer.5
If you have asthma, it’s important that you avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.3
If you are among the 21% of U.S. adults who have asthma and smoke, quit smoking.6
If you or a family member has asthma, you can manage it with the help of your health care provider (for example, by taking your medicines exactly as your doctor tells you) and by avoiding triggers. Staying far away from tobacco smoke is one important way to avoid asthma attacks. Some other helpful tips are:
- Do not smoke or allow others to smoke in your home or car. Opening a window does not protect you from smoke.5
- If your state still allows smoking in public areas, look for restaurants and other places that do not allow smoking. "No-smoking sections" in the same restaurant with "smoking sections" do not protect adequately from secondhand smoke5—even if there is a filter or ventilation system.7
- Make sure your children’s day care centers and schools are tobacco-free. For schools, a tobacco-free campus policy means no tobacco use or advertising on school property is allowed by anyone at any time. This includes off-campus school events.5
- Teach children to stay away from secondhand smoke. Be a good role model by not smoking.5
There is no cure for asthma. However, to help control your asthma and avoid attacks:2
- Take your medicine exactly as your doctor tells you.
- Stay away from things that can trigger an attack.
Everyone with asthma does not take the same medicine. Some medicines can be breathed in, and some can be taken as a pill. There are two kinds of asthma medicines2
- Quick-relief (can help control symptoms of an asthma attack)
- Long-term control (can help you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you while you are having an asthma attack)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma’s Impact on the Nation: Data From the CDC National Asthma Control Program [PDF - 531.18KB] [accessed 2014 May 5].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma: Basic Information [last updated 2012 Aug 3; accessed 2014 May 5].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma: Common Asthma Triggers [last updated 2012 Aug 20; accessed 2014 May 5].
- National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Research Triangle Park (NC): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program, 2011.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010 [accessed 2014 May 5].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma Stats: Percentage of People With Asthma Who Smoke [last updated 2013 Jan 31; accessed 2014 May 5].
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke. Secondhand Smoke: What It Means to You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2006 [accessed 2014 May 5].
- Page last reviewed: September 1, 2015
- Page last updated: September 1, 2015
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