How Secondhand Smoke Seriously Damages Your Child’s Health

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Most people know how damaging, potentially even deadly, smoking is for their health. But what often gets overlooked are the dangers of secondhand smoke, causing up to 3,000 deaths from lung cancer and tens of thousands of deaths from heart disease to nonsmoking adults in the U.S. each year. But here at Westchester Health Pediatrics, what we find especially troubling is the fact that secondhand smoke is especially harmful to children’s health because their lungs are still developing.

Millions of children are breathing in secondhand smoke in their own homes

Rodd Stein 2R WEB72

Rodd Stein, MD

If you smoke around your children, or they are continually exposed to secondhand smoke from other people, they may be in more danger than you realize. Even if you only smoke outside, your children are still exposed to the harmful chemicals found in secondhand smoke. The best way to eliminate this health danger? To quit smoking.

What exactly is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke is what a smoker breathes out after inhaling a cigarette, cigar, pipe or other smoking device. This inhaled/exhaled smoke typically contains around 4,000 chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer. When children breathe in this secondhand smoke, they are exposed to these chemicals.

And that’s not all. The American Academy Pediatrics (AAP) has conducted research on the effects of thirdhand smoke (the harmful toxins that remain on materials where people have smoked, such as car seat upholstery or even a child’s hair) and found that it is also harmful.

How secondhand smoke hurts your baby

If you smoke, or are exposed to secondhand smoke when you’re pregnant, your unborn baby is exposed to the harmful chemicals contained in tobacco smoke, too. This can lead to many serious health problems, including:

  • Miscarriage
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight (possibly resulting in a less healthy baby)
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Learning problems and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

These health risks increase the more you smoke, or are exposed to smoke, while pregnant. Quitting anytime during pregnancy helps—the sooner the better. All pregnant women should absolutely avoid secondhand smoke and ask smokers not to smoke around them.

What secondhand smoke does to your children’s health

  • Infants have a higher risk of SIDS when they are exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Children have a higher risk of serious health problems, and existing health problems may become worse.
  • Children who breathe secondhand smoke typically have more:
    • Ear infections
    • Coughs and colds
    • Respiratory problems, such as bronchitis and pneumonia
    • Tooth decay
  • Children of smokers cough and wheeze more and have a harder time getting over colds.
  • Children of smokers miss many more school days than those of non-smokers.
  • Secondhand smoke causes many other issues, including stuffy nose, headache, sore throat, eye irritation and hoarseness.
  • Children with asthma are especially sensitive to secondhand smoke. It may cause more and more severe asthma attacks, requiring trips to the hospital.

The long-term effects of secondhand smoke

It’s a proven fact that children who grow up with parents who smoke are themselves more likely to smoke. Children and teens who smoke are affected by the same health problems that affect adults, including:

  • Poor lung development
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Cataracts

Children can be exposed to secondhand smoke in a number of places

Although most indoor spaces are now smoke-free, your children can still be exposed to secondhand smoke in a variety of ways:

  • In someone else’s house
  • At outdoor sporting events or concerts
  • In parks or playgrounds

How you can create a smoke-free environment

The following tips may help your children avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke:

  1. Set the example. If you smoke, quit today! If your children see you smoking, they may want to try it and then turn into smokers, too. If there are cigarettes at home, children are more likely to experiment with smoking—the first step in becoming addicted.
  2. Remove your children from places where smoking is allowed, even if no one is smoking while you are there. Chemicals from smoke can be found on surfaces in rooms and on walls even days after the smoking occurred.
  3. Make your home smoke-free. Until you can quit, don’t smoke inside your home and don’t smoke anywhere near your children, even if you are outside. Be aware that air flows throughout a house, so that smoking in one room allows the smoke to circulate.
  4. Make your car smoke-free. Until you can quit, don’t smoke inside your car. Opening windows isn’t enough to clear the air and can actually blow smoke back into the faces of passengers in the back seat.
  5. Only allow non-smoking childcare workers to take care of your children. Even if they smoke outside, your children are still exposed to the harmful chemicals.

Help to stop smoking, for your own health and the health of your children

If you smoke, one of the most important things you can do for your own health and the health of your children is to stop smoking. Quitting is the best way to prevent your children from being exposed to secondhand smoke and safeguard their health.

There are many over-the-counter and prescription medicines that can help you quit. Also, every state has a QuitLine. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to be connected to the one in your state and for local resources to help you quit.

Additional information and resources:

Want to know more about the dangers of secondhand smoke? Come see us.

If you’re concerned that your children are being exposed to secondhand smoke and that their health may be affected, please come in and see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Together, we’ll figure out the best way forward for everyone, and if needed, help you get help to stop smoking.

Make an apptBy Rodd Stein, MD, FAAP, a Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatrician.

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About the Author: ML Ball