Secondhand smoke is a combination of the smoke from a burning cigarette and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. It contaminates the air and is collected in clothing, hair, curtains, and furniture. Many people find secondhand smoke unpleasant, annoying, and irritating to the eyes and nose. More importantly, it represents a dangerous health hazard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco smoke contains a deadly mix of more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic, and about 70 can cause cancer.
Although secondhand smoke is dangerous to everyone, fetuses, infants, and children are at most risk because it can damage developing organs, such as the lungs and brain. About four out of 10 U.S. children ages three to 11 (40.6 percent) are exposed to secondhand smoke. The percentage of U.S. children and teens living with at least one smoker is about three times the percentage of nonsmoking adults who live with a smoker.1
Furthermore, it’s estimated that secondhand smoke caused nearly 34,000 heart disease deaths each year between 2005 and 2009 among adult nonsmokers in the U.S., and secondhand smoke exposure caused more than 7,300 lung cancer deaths each year among adult nonsmokers in the U.S. during the same time period.2
Maternal, fetal, and placental blood flow change when pregnant women smoke, although the long-term health effects of these changes are not known. Some studies suggest that smoking during pregnancy causes birth defects such as cleft lip or palate.3 Smoking mothers produce less milk, and their babies have a lower birth weight. Maternal smoking is also associated with neonatal death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the major cause of death in infants between one-month and one-year-old.4-5
Exposure to secondhand smoke decreases lung efficiency and impairs lung function in children of all ages. It increases both the frequency and severity of childhood asthma, and aggravate sinusitis, rhinitis, cystic fibrosis, and chronic respiratory problems such as cough and post-nasal drip. It also increases colds and sore throats. In children under two, secondhand smoke exposure increases the likelihood of bronchitis and pneumonia. Children of parents who smoke half a pack a day or more are at nearly double the risk of hospitalization for a respiratory illness.
Exposure to secondhand smoke increases both the number of ear infections a child will experience, and the duration of the illness. Inhaled smoke irritates the eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. This causes swelling and obstruction which interferes with pressure equalization in the middle ear, leading to pain, fluid and infection. Ear infections and middle ear fluid are the most common cause of children’s hearing loss. When they do not respond to medical treatment, the surgical insertion of tubes into the ears is often required. Upon insertion of tubes, secondhand smoke increases the risk of persistent drainage from the tubes.6 Secondhand smoke also puts teenagers at a higher risk for low-frequency sensorineural hearing loss that is directly related to level of exposure.7
Finally, children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to suffer behavioral problems such as hyperactivity than children of non-smoking mothers. Modest impairment in school performance and intellectual achievement has also been demonstrated.
Here are some steps you can take to help protect your child or children from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke:
2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014
3 Burg ML, Chai Y, Yao CA, Magee W 3rd, Figueiredo JC. Epidemiology, Etiology, and Treatment of Isolated Cleft Palate. Front Physiol. 2016, 7:67.
4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General: Secondhand Smoke: What It Means To You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2006
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010
6 Bizzell JG, Cox MD, Want AR, Richter GT, Nolder AR. The impact of tobacco exposure on development of otorrhea after myringotomy tube placement. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2017, 92: 67-69.
7 Lalwani AK, Liu YH, Weitzman M. Secondhand smoke and sensorineural hearing loss in adolescents. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2011, 137: 655-662.