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Secondhand Smoke and Children: Know the Risk


If you smoke, the best thing you can do to improve your health — and, more importantly, the health of your child — is to quit.

And if you aren’t willing to quit altogether, at least stop smoking around your child.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are known toxins and at least 70 of which are classified carcinogens, meaning they’ve been clinically proven to cause cancer. The smoke that you exhale or that curls freely from the end of your cigarette (or cigar, or pipe) is just as toxic as the smoke you inhale with each puff, exposing those around you to the same health risks that you encounter as a smoker.

While other adults may ask you to put it out or leave your company, children often have little choice but to just quietly endure the exposure to these dangerous chemicals.

The health risks to children from exposure to secondhand smoke begins when they’re very young. The rate of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, among babies who are exposed to tobacco smoke is much higher than those who reside in tobacco-free homes. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that infants of mothers who smoke are at a five-times greater risk of SIDS than the infants of mothers who do not smoke.

As children are exposed to secondhand smoke in the years that follow, they experience additional health risks. Children of tobacco users experience more ear infections, more respiratory issues — including infections like bronchitis and pneumonia — and even greater incidents of colds and tooth decay. Secondhand smoke is also a leading trigger for asthma attacks. Long-term risks from exposure to secondhand smoke include increased rates of heart disease, eye problems (including cataracts) and lung problems, ranging from issues with lung development to lung cancer.

Most people — including children — encounter exposure to secondhand smoke at home. Many children are also exposed to secondhand smoke in cars, at the homes of relatives or friends, and in public places where smoking is permitted, such as parks or sporting events.

There are ways to reduce your child’s risk of suffering the health effects of secondhand smoke:

  • Quit. This is the best thing you can do for your own health and the health of your child. It also sets a great example for your child — the children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves.

  • Keep Away from Smoke. Don’t take your child to places where you know people will be smoking. Ensure that your child’s daycare center is a tobacco-free zone. And don’t be afraid to be an advocate for your child’s health — it’s OK to ask others not to smoke around your child.

  • Tell Your Pediatrician. If your child is exposed to secondhand smoke, speak to your child’s pediatrician; he or she may recommend additional health screenings for your child and offer resources to help the smoker quit tobacco.

  • Change Policy. You don’t have to be scared to speak up: ask city or county leaders to implement tobacco-free policies at public parks, push your property management company to adopt tobacco-free policies for tenants, and talk to neighbors and others about not using tobacco around your child.

    If you need additional support with quitting tobacco, Tanner’s Get Healthy, Live Well can help. Sign up for the initiative’s free Freshstart tobacco cessation program to get the support you need to quit. You can also discuss strategies with your own primary care medical provider — odds are, he or she has probably helped plenty of other people quit tobacco as well.

Dr. Colden is a pediatrician with Children’s Healthcare of West Georgia, part of Tanner Medical Group. She earned her medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, where she also completed her internship and residency in pediatrics. Children’s Healthcare of West Georgia has practice locations in Carrollton, Villa Rica and Bremen.