How can I protect my children from second hand smoke?

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Last Modified: November 1, 2001


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
How can I protect my children from second hand smoke?  


Heather Jones, MD, OncoLink Editorial Assistant, responds:

Secondhand smoke, sometimes called environmental tobacco smoke, is a mixture of the smoke given off by burning cigarettes, pipes, or cigars and that is exhaled from the lungs of a smoker. This smoke contains about 4,000 substances, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer in humans or animals. Many others are known irritants.

Many children in the United States are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, a health hazard often referred to as "passive smoking." This exposure can damage the developing lungs of young children. Studies have shown that children exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to have diminished lung function, infections, coughing, wheezing, and increased mucous production.

Asthmatic children are especially at risk. According to The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to secondhand smoke increases the number of episodes and severity of asthmatic symptoms for an estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 asthmatic children (see also J Asthma 1995: 32(4) 285-94).

Healthy children are adversely affected by secondhand smoke as well. The EPA estimates that passive smoking is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in children less than 18 months old.

Passive smoking may also contribute to ear infections; the number one reason young children visit their doctors and take antibiotics. Exposure to smoke may lead to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear, which in turn contributes to the development of childhood middle ear infection. A study from the Alberta Children's Hospital demonstrated a connection between exposure to cigarette smoke in the home and increased risk of middle ear infection.

Parents can decrease their children's exposure to secondhand smoke by simply not smoking. If you are the smoking parent of a young child, talk to your doctor to get help with quitting. If you have a household member who smokes, encourage them to stop. If it is not possible for household members or guests to stop smoking, then ask them to smoke outside the home. Also, be sure that your children's school and daycare facilities are smoke-free.