allergy: The inappropriate reaction by the body’s immune system to a normally harmless substance. Untreated, a particularly severe reaction can lead to death.
annual: Adjective for something that happens every year. (in botany) A plant that lives only one year, so it usually has a showy flower and produces many seeds.
asthma: A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.
atom: The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
blood pressure: The force exerted against vessel walls by blood moving through the body. Usually this pressure refers to blood moving specifically through the body’s arteries. That pressure allows blood to circulate to our heads and keeps the fluid moving so that it can deliver oxygen to all tissues. Blood pressure can vary based on physical activity and the body’s position. High blood pressure can put someone at risk for heart attacks or stroke. Low blood pressure may leave people dizzy, or faint, as the pressure becomes too low to supply enough blood to the brain.
carbon monoxide: A toxic gas whose molecules include one carbon atom and one oxygen atom. (The “mono” in “monoxide” is a prefix from Greek that means “one”.) One common source: fossil-fuel burning.
cell: The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells.
chemical: A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
cotinine: A breakdown product of the nicotine produced in tobacco leaves. Nicotine doesn’t last in the body as long as cotinine. That’s why many studies use cotinine as a marker of someone’s previous exposure to tobacco smoke or other sources of nicotine.
DNA: (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
e-cigarette: (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People use these devices are known as vapers.
epigenetic: An adjective that relates to the molecular switches that can turn a gene on or off. Methyl groups — chemical clusters each made of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms — latch onto DNA near a gene. It’s these methyl groups that can alter the programmed activity of a gene. Individuals can acquire an epigenetic change at any time during their lives.
gene: (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.
genetic: Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.
gut: An informal term for the gastrointestinal tract, especially the intestines.
high blood pressure: The common term for a medical condition known as hypertension. It puts a strain on blood vessels and the heart.
hydrogen: The lightest element in the universe. As a gas, it is colorless, odorless and highly flammable. It’s an integral part of many fuels, fats and chemicals that make up living tissues. It’s made of a single proton (which serves as its nucleus) orbited by a single electron.
immune system: The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.
immunity: The ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or poison by providing cells to remove, kill or disarm the dangerous substance or infectious germ. Or, when used colloquially, it means the ability to avoid some other type of adverse impact (such as firing from a job or being bullied).
immunology: The field of biomedicine that deals with the immune system. A doctor or scientist who works in that field is known as an immunologist.
infection: A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some type of germ.
inflammation: (adj. inflammatory) The body’s response to cellular injury and obesity; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It also is an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.
kidney: Each in a pair of organs in mammals that filters blood and produces urine.
marrow: (in physiology and medicine) Spongy tissue that develops inside of bones. Most red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and blood platelets form within the marrow.
molecule: An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
monitor: To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.
network: A group of interconnected people or things. (v.) The act of connecting with other people who work in a given area or do similar thing (such as artists, business leaders or medical-support groups), often by going to gatherings where such people would be expected, and then chatting them up. (n. networking)
nicotine: A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the “buzz” associated with smoking. Highly addictive, nicotine is the substance that makes it hard for smokers to give up their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.
ozone: A colorless gas made of molecules that contain three oxygen atoms. It can form high in the atmosphere or at ground level. When it forms at Earth’s surface, ozone is a pollutant that irritates eyes and lungs. It is also a major ingredient of smog.
pollutant: A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.
regulate: (n. regulation) To control with actions. Governments write rules and regulations — laws — that are enforced by police and the courts.
residue: A remnant or material that is left behind after something has been removed. For instance, residues of paint may remain behind after someone attempts to sand a piece of wood; or sticky residues of adhesive tape may remain on the skin after a bandage is removed; or residues of chemicals may remain in the blood after exposure to a pollutant.
risk: The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
secondhand smoke: The gas and smoke particles emitted out of the burning end of a cigarette in addition to the particles exhaled by smokers. This pollution can be toxic and hand into the air (where it is available to be breathed in) for hours. Government scientists report that this secondhand smoke may contain up to 7,000 different chemicals, including hundreds that may be toxic (70 of which can cause cancer). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1964, some 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from exposure to secondhand smoke.
smoke: Plumes of microscopic particles that float in the air. They can be comprised of anything very small. But the best known types are pollutants created by the incomplete burning of oil, wood and other carbon-based materials.
smoking: A term for the deliberate inhalation of tobacco smoke from burning cigarettes.
stroke: (in biology and medicine) A condition where blood stops flowing to part of the brain or leaks in the brain.
survey: To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
tobacco: A plant cultivated for its leaves, which many people burn in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves also are sometimes chewed. The main active drug in tobacco leaves is nicotine, a powerful stimulant (and poison).
vaping: (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.
white blood cells: Blood cells that help the body fight off infection.
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