Asthma and Secondhand Smoke

What Is Asthma?

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

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness or pain in the chest

Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate, or serious—and even life threatening.1

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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 a common trigger for asthma. Tobacco smoke—including secondhand smoke—is unhealthy for everyone, especially people with asthma.3,6 Secondhand smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles that includes:4,5

  • Smoke from burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
  • 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.6

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, get help to quit smoking; talk to your doctor about treatments that can help you, or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW. 7

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How Can Asthma Attacks Be Prevented?

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 your  triggers. Try to avoid asthma attacks by staying far away from tobacco smoke. 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.8
  • 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 smoke8—even if there is a filter or ventilation system.9
  • 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.8
  • Teach children to stay away from secondhand smoke. Be a good role model by not smoking.8

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How Is Asthma Treated?

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 medicines:2

  • 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)

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References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC’s National Asthma Control Program: An Investment in America’s Healthpdf icon, 2013. [accessed 2020 March 18].
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learn How to Control Asthma  [last updated 2018 Sept 26; accessed 2019 June 24].
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Asthma Triggers [last updated 2010 Dec 14; accessed 2019 Jun 24].
  4. National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Editionexternal icon. Research Triangle Park (NC): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2016 [accessed 2019 June 24].
  5. Institute of Medicine. Secondhand Smoke Exposure and Cardiovascular Effects: Making Sense of the Evidenceexternal icon. Washington: National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, 2009 [accessed 2019 June 24].
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. 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, 2014 [accessed 2019 June 24].
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma Stats: Percentage of People with Asthma Who Smoke [last updated 2013 Jan 31; accessed 2019 June 24].
  8. 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 2019 June 24].
  9. 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 2019 June 24].
Jamason
Meet Jamason

Jamason has had asthma attacks triggered by exposure to secondhand smoke.

“I was 16. People were smoking near me. My chest got really tight. I was trying to breathe, trying to get air into my lungs. I couldn’t bear it!”


Real stories about asthma:

Today I start my quit journey. Free resources provided by smokefree.gov