Children and smoking
We all know we shouldn’t smoke around children, but why are children so much more vulnerable to the harms of tobacco smoke?
Unlike adults, children often can’t choose where they want to live or spend time. That means they can’t easily get away from an environment where there is tobacco smoke. If an adult is smoking around them, they will be exposed to second-hand smoke. Children are most likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke at home.
Children breathe more quickly than adults so they breathe in more second-hand smoke when exposed. Their lungs are also smaller, more delicate and still developing so are particularly vulnerable to health issues related to breathing in second-hand smoke.
Children aren’t born with a full set of the tiny air sacs in the lungs that collect the oxygen we breathe in (called alveoli). Between birth and age four, as the lungs grow, children’s bodies are busy making more alveoli. So if the lungs are damaged by second-hand smoke during this important period, it can cause poorer lung function throughout childhood, which may even continue into teenage years and early adulthood. Poor lung function can leave people more vulnerable to second-hand smoke, air pollution and other lung irritants later in life.
Second-hand smoke and asthma in children
Second-hand smoke both causes asthma and makes asthma worse in children. Children with asthma living in households where they are exposed to second-hand smoke are twice as likely to be hospitalised with asthma compared with children who aren’t exposed. Asthma is more common in children living in households where there are people who smoke.
Second-hand smoke and chest infections in children
Children living in homes where they are exposed to second-hand smoke have a greater risk of chest infections. Children aged two or younger who are exposed to second-hand smoke in the home have a 50 percent higher chance of developing these conditions than children in smoke-free homes.
Second-hand smoke and middle ear disease in children
Children exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to suffer from middle ear disease (otitis media). Middle ear disease occurs when the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat gets blocked or swollen. This can cause a build-up of fluid known as ‘glue ear’. Sometimes this fluid can become infected. Children of people who smoke are less likely to recover from middle ear disease on their own compared to children of people who don’t smoke. Children who have episodes of glue ear may have trouble hearing, and could have ongoing problems with speech, and other developmental and behavioural problems.
Smoking and infant death
When a pregnant woman smokes, her unborn baby is exposed to the harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke. Babies born to mothers who smoke have an increased risk of low birth weight, pre-term delivery and sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI). Babies aged one year or less with mothers who smoked during pregnancy have higher death rates than those whose mothers didn’t smoke.
SUDI is the sudden, unexpected death of a baby under the age of one. Babies exposed to second-hand smoke have a much greater likelihood of SUDI. It’s not completely clear how second-hand smoke increases the risk of SUDI, but it can damage babies’ lungs and increase the risk of lung infection. It’s also thought second-hand smoke can affect how well a baby can control its breathing and heart rate.
Second-hand smoke is a preventable risk factor for SUDI. It’s crucial that parents who smoke make their homes and cars smoke free.
Smoking and reproductive health
What can you do?
The best thing you can do to protect your children, is to stop smoking.
If you are not ready to stop smoking just yet, make sure you don’t smoke around your children, and make your home and car smoke-free zones.