The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

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Navigating the hazards: Smoking and vaping in the home and its impact on asthma

Monday, September 11, 2023

As part of Asthma Week we covered known triggers in the home for people with asthma. In the final of this series, the Woolcock’s Distinguished Professor Brian Oliver, head of the Respiratory Cellular and Molecular Biology research group, talks about smoking and vaping.

Evidence of the harms done by smoking and vaping in the home continues to grow. 

The dangers are particularly acute for those living with asthma and young children, for whom exposure in the home can cause asthma.


Hidden toxins from smoking and vaping can trigger breathing difficulties and exacerbate asthma symptoms, turning the living space into a potential hazard zone. 

We know smoking and vaping can lead to unquantifiable damage to airways. 

We know that smoking around children is detrimental for those with asthma and can even increase the risk of having asthma later in life.

“The largest modifiable thing that you can do to reduce the incidence of asthma in children is to stop smoking,” said the Woolcock’s Distinguished Professor Brian Oliver. “This applies equally to women who smoke or who are living in smoking households during pregnancy. If you smoke in a confined space, the exposure is considerable.”

Epidemiological studies indicate a link between smoking and asthma risk that can be passed down through generations. “If your grandmother smoked, it could actually increase the likelihood of asthma in subsequent generations,” he said.

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The evidence of the harm done by first and second-hand smoking is clear and comprehensive. However, there’s another less-known risk that quietly lingers in a home where people smoke – third-hand exposure, or the transfer of chemicals from surfaces. 

Professor Oliver’s research group has conducted studies showing that residues from smoking or vaping can be left on surfaces and passed on to others through touch. 

“In a smoking household, everyone is exposed to the third-hand residues, but infants and young children are at particular risk. They’re into everything – crawling, playing and touching every surface – then putting their hands in their mouths. The effect is like putting a nicotine patch on their skin.”

And the health risks are more than likely the same when it comes to vaping. Professor Oliver suggests they may even be greater.  

“There are a whole range of chemicals in vapes that give them their different flavours that just aren’t regulated. We don’t know what effect these may have on human health.”


For someone with asthma, smoking or vaping in the home can trigger more frequent exacerbations, which in turn causes more inflammation in their lungs, making medication less likely to work. 

And long after you stop smoking inside the home, the residue remains on surfaces and continues to pose a risk to children and those with asthma. The yellow tinge of nicotine on white surfaces which remains for years is an obvious one. 

Whilst education is the key to making people aware of these hazards in the home, more intervention is needed.

Governments are now beginning to introduce greater controls and legislation around the sale of vapes. Researchers believe vaping has the potential to be an even greater risk to respiratory health than smoking.  

“Vapes are not expensive so you can vape more without it costing you $50 a packet. We know vapes are everywhere in schools and we know they are leading to higher rates of smoking in young people,” says Oliver. 

“Given that vaping is relatively newer, there have not been definitive human studies yet completed on its risks to health. Nothing that we have found, though, is good.”  

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