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Cancer is a general term for more than 100 diseases caused by uncontrolled, abnormal cell growth and death. The four most common cancers affect the breasts, colon or rectum, lungs and prostate.

Learn more from Allina Health cancer care.

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Lung cancer

Lung cancer is a tumor of abnormal cells that reproduce rapidly and do not grow into normal lung tissue. To prevent most lung cancer cases, all you need to do is stop smoking – or never start.

Learn more about lung cancer from Allina Health cancer care.

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Heart disease

Heart disease is a general term that refers to a number of conditions that affect the heart. When something goes wrong with your heart, it could be related to blood flow, how your heart pumps, your heart rhythm, with the blood vessels, the valves, or a birth defect. Learn more in our heart health manual.

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Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the sudden and unexplainable death of a baby younger than 12 months old. These babies appear to be healthy yet die when they are asleep.

Learn how to reduce the risk of SIDS in the Guide for the Care of Children.

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Ear infection

An ear infection (otitis media) affects your child's middle ear (behind the eardrum). It can be caused by a bacteria or virus and often follows an upper respiratory infection (such as a cold).

Learn more about ear infections in the Guide for the Care of Children.

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Asthma is a breathing disorder that causes the small airways in your child's lungs to become inflamed or swollen. This makes it hard for your child to breathe. During an asthma attack, your child may cough, wheeze and have a hard time breathing.

Learn more about asthma in the Guide for the Care of Children.

a smoker takes a drag on a cigarette, exposing others to secondhand smoke

Secondhand and thirdhand smoke

Secondhand smoke is a mixture of smoke coming from the burning tips of cigarettes, pipes and cigars, and smoke exhaled by smokers.

Anyone around secondhand smoke breathes in the chemicals from the tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke causes death and disease in people who do not smoke.

Thirdhand smoke is the chemicals left behind after secondhand smoke.

It is what you smell on your clothes, hair, furniture or in the car. Thirdhand smoke is also the brown film on the walls.

No amount is safe

No amount of secondhand smoke is safe. The Environmental Protection Agency lists secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer in people.

  • Cigarette smoke has more than 7,000 chemical compounds.
  • The National Toxicology Program estimates that at least 250 chemicals in secondhand smoke are known to be toxic or cause cancer.

Poisonous gases and chemicals in secondhand smoke include:

  • hydrogen cyanide (used in chemical weapons)
  • carbon monoxide (in car exhaust)
  • butane (used in lighter fluid)
  • ammonia, and
  • toluene (found in paint thinners).

Toxic metals in secondhand smoke include:

  • arsenic (used in pesticides)
  • lead
  • chromium (used to make steel)
  • cadmium (used to make batteries).

How secondhand smoke affects adults

Secondhand smoke can cause health problems for adults who do not smoke. Each year, secondhand smoke causes:

Breathing secondhand smoke can:

  • irritate and damage the lining of the airways
  • trigger symptoms such as a cough, phlegm, wheezing and breatlessness.

How secondhand smoke affects children

Secondhand smoke can cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), breathing problems, ear infections and asthma attacks in babies and children.

The best way to protect the health of your family is to
quit smoking.
For help:
Talk with your health care provider.
Call your insurance provider.
Call Allina Health Class Registration at 1-866-904-9962 or go to for quit smoking classes or support groups.

It causes:

  • between 150,000 to 300,000 infections (such as bronchitis and pneumonia) in children younger than 18 months old.
  • between 1,900 and 2,700 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths in the U.S. each year.

Among children aged 3 to 11 years old:

  • nearly 6 in 10 children (60 percent) are exposed to secondhand smoke
  • about 1 in 4 children (25 percent) live with at least one adult who smokes.

Children are also at a high risk to be exposed to thirdhand smoke. Children touch and crawl around surfaces that have chemicals on them from smoke.

How to protect yourself and your family from secondhand smoke

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the only way to protect your family from secondhand smoke is to live in a smoke-free environment.

  • Make your home and car smoke-free.
  • Ask people not to smoke around you and your child(ren).
  • Check on the smoking policies of home daycare providers.
  • Share information with other parents about the health risks of secondhand and thirdhand smoke.
  • Teach your child to stay away from tobacco products and secondhand smoke.
  • If an adult in your home smokes, only allow smoking outside.
  • Wear a jacket or an overshirt when smoking then take it off when you are done. This reduces thirdhand smoke but it doesn't get rid of it.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Secondhand Smoke and Thirdhand Smoke, gen-ah-31649

Information adapted from the U.S. Surgeon General's 2006 report The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke and U.S. Surgeon General's 2010 report How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What it Means To You

Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department
First Published: 06/29/2006
Last Reviewed: 10/29/2013