Why is second hand smoke bad for children?

second smoke and children health

I have a 3 year old daughter and a 1 year old son, and a husband who smokes. I used to smoke myself, but quit about 7 years ago after a doctor told me I was at risk of throat cancer if I didn’t quit.

Yes, everyone is at risk of cancer if they smoke, but I had silent reflux and was more susceptible than others – for some reason it hit home with me and I stopped smoking that day. That was 3 years before I got pregnant with my daughter.

Quitting isn’t easy

smoking_cigarette_lung_cancerFor me it seemed easy to quit, and I never understood why my husband found it so much harder. The week after our daughter was born he even tried hypnotism to get him to quit – but he was back smoking within weeks. The good news was, that throughout my pregnancy and once our daughter was born, he no longer lit a cigarette anywhere near me. He would smoke metres away, or if he forgot – then I would move myself and our daughter away instead. We all know that first hand smoke is bad for us, but when you’re a smoker, you often don’t really think about how bad second hand smoke is for those around us – that is, until we become parents.

More susceptible

cigarettes_ash_tiltChildren are actually much more susceptible to problems associated with second hand smoke than many of us realise, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. They are smaller and their little lungs are working overtime to develop, which means they are taking more breaths per minute than adults. That means they are inhaling twice as much smoke or three times as many toxins as we do. And as their bodies are not yet fully developed, it can affect their health a lot faster.

No doubt you’re aware of the dangers that second hand smoke presents for pregnant women and the harm it can cause to babies in utero (see our blog Reasons to stay away from smokers if you’re pregnant), but exposure is just as dangerous once the baby is born (if not more), and into childhood.

4 ways second hand smoke can harm your child:

1. Death
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) refers to the unexplained death of a child under the age of 1 year. Though there is no conclusive research that proves a link (SIDS remains unexplained), it is believed that exposure of second hand smoke to a newborn can lead to a higher risk due to increased inflammation of the baby’s airways, lung infection or increased heart rates. According to estimates in Australia, infants that are exposed to second hand smoke are 2.5 times more likely to die from SIDS; and the US – 5 times more likely. This risk was higher of course when the child was living with a smoker.

Infant death is another factor to take into consideration, with a 58% greater risk of infant death associated to babies whose mother smoked during pregnancy. By “infant death” we’re talking about things like premature delivery.

2. Respiratory and lung infections
Children who are exposed to second hand smoke have a higher risk of developing things like asthma, which can be extremely dangerous for young ones; and other respiratory problems, including coughing and breathlessness. Bronchitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia and general chest infections are also more common among children who breathe second hand smoke. Babies who live with smokers are 50% more likely to have lower respiratory problems throughout their young life than children who are not exposed – and in fact, according to research, if it’s the mother who smokes, not the father, that risk increases another 10%.

Because their lungs are still growing as well, exposure to second hand smoke between the ages of one and four years can lead to lung problems later in life.

3. Increased risk of infection and other health issues
There are a number of general health problems that children may be at risk of if exposed to second hand smoke, including tooth decay, gastrointestinal problems, behavoural issues, and they may have a reduced sense of smell. Another major problem is middle ear disease and children who live with smokers have a 35% greater risk of suffering from middle ear infections (again, this increases by more than 10% if it’s the mother who smokes). Middle ear disease is uncomfortable or painful for children, as their Eustachian tube connecting the middle ear to the back of the throat blocks or swells, often leading to infection. If your child suffers from too many infections as a child, it could lead to hearing loss, behavioural or developmental problems as they grow older.

4. Cancer
Generally when you think of cancer caused from smoking you think it can only be associated with the actual person smoking, but this is not true. Although this is something that is undergoing further research, there is evidence now that shows a link between parents who smoke, and children who suffer from brain tumours, lumphomas and acute lymphocytic leukaemia.

I guess it’s pretty simple – if you are worried that something isn’t good for your children, it probably isn’t and while we can’t shield our children from everything (my 1 year old is just too fast some days!), we can (and should) certainly protect them from the harmful toxins that second hand smoke promotes. Whether that means it’s time to quit smoking yourself, talk your partner into doing it, or just keeping your distance from friends who don’t consider others before lighting a cigarette within arm’s reach, if it can be of benefit to your child’s health and future – why wouldn’t you do it?

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