Updated 08 October 2018

How secondhand smoke boosts sinusitis risk

If you are continuously struggling with blocked and swollen sinuses, secondhand smoke may be to blame.

Secondhand smoke could be the reason for your chronic runny, itchy nose and sinus problems. 

Secondhand smoke exposure has been implicated as a risk factor for a number of respiratory ailments, including asthma and other conditions including heart disease and cancers of the sinus and lung. 

Research suggests that there could be a link between second-hand smoke and rhinosinusitis

Correlation of tobacco smoke exposure and sinusitis

According to a study published in Archives of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgeryresearchers compared secondhand smoke exposure among patients with chronic sinusitis to non-sinus sufferers matched for age, sex, and race in four settings: home, work, public settings, and private social gatherings.

Chronic sinusitis, also known as rhinosinusitis, refers to the inflammation of the tissue lining the sinuses. According to a previous Health24 article, sinusitis affects approximately 30% of the population at some point.

“If you’ve had a history of chronic rhinosinusitis or if you have sensitive nasal passages and sinuses and you’re vulnerable, then definitely, absolutely you should avoid secondhand smoke,” Dr C. Martin Tammemagi of Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, who helped conduct the study, explained. 

Dr Tammemagi and his colleagues found that exposure to secondhand smoke, especially at work and at private social functions like parties and weddings, increased the likelihood of suffering from chronic rhinosinusitis. In fact, they calculated that passive smoking is behind 40% of all cases of the condition in the US. 

The more places people reported being exposed to tobacco smoke, the higher their risk for chronic sinusitis. In South Africa, according to the World Health Organisation, more than a third of South Africans could be exposed to dangerous levels of secondhand smoke. 

40% of cases caused by secondhand smoke

Participants in the study with chronic sinusitis were almost twice as likely as those without sinusitis to report secondhand smoke exposure at various social gatherings – 51% compared to 28%.

In the work space, patients were more than twice as likely to report exposure – 18% compared to 7%. 

The participants were also more likely to report exposure at home and in public places, although these associations did not reach statistical importance. "Ours is one of the first studies to connect secondhand smoke to rhinosinusitis," Dr Tammemagi told the press. "Our research confirms that people are being exposed in large numbers and it indicates that about 40% of cases are caused by secondhand smoke."

Limiting exposure not easy

The finding that private social meetings are an important contributor to secondhand smoke exposure came as a surprise, according to Dr Tammemagi.

"Certainly from a public policy point of view, limiting these exposures is not easy," he said. "But people with sinus problems need to recognise that exposure when they go to a party or a card game at a friend's house puts them at risk."

However, Dr Tammemagi and his colleagues are still not exactly certain how secondhand smoke might cause sinusitis.

"We know that secondhand smoke contains thousands of irritating chemicals, and we suspect that they damage the immune system and lead to invasion by infectious agents," explained Dr Tammemagi.

"Also, the irritants in the secondhand smoke can lead to changes in the permeability of the membranes lining the nose and sinuses. This could make it more possible for allergens and toxins to enter the cells of the tissue."

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Sinusitis Expert

Dr Gary Kroukamp MBCHB, FCORL(SA) is an ENT Specialist, practising from rooms at Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont, Cape Town. He also has a teaching sessional appointment as an ENT Consultant at the Tygerberg Hospital. He is a member of the ENT Society of South Africa and the South African Cochlear Implantation Group. His interests in the ENT field include sinusitis and sinus surgery, nasal allergy and ENT conditions in children.

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