News on Wellness

Secondhand Smoke: New Risks for Children Exposed to Parental Smoking

newborn-childIt should come as no surprise that fetuses and small children are still being negatively impacted by parental smoking. For years, the public has been warned about the ill effects of smoking during pregnancy but also dangers associated with children and secondhand smoke. However, new information discovered by researchers is even more alarming.

A well-documented study consisting of nearly 4,000 children was conducted at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm Sweden. As noted by Jesse Thacher, one of the institute’s doctoral students, the existing dangers of parental smoking are dramatically understated. Through this study, a link between persisting health problems in teenagers and children raised in a home where one or both parents smoked was confirmed. According to Thacher, “Exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy or infancy increases a child’s risk of developing allergic disease, even up to adolescence”.

To gather data, parents with children born between 1994 and 1996 were asked if they smoked. In addition to this information, researchers asked about lifestyle and any known symptoms associated with allergic disease in their children. In response, approximately 13% of the mothers interviewed smoked while pregnant and more than 20% smoked while the children were still infants.

It was learned that smoking during pregnancy led to an overall 45% increased risk of developing asthma in children up to the age of 16. The study also identified an 18% increase in risk for developing allergic rhinitis and asthma in childhood all the way to age 23 when exposed to parental smoking as a baby, as well as risk for developing eczema, which rose by 26%.

Although the increased incidences of rhinitis and asthma were primarily seen in earlier childhood, eczema occurred much later. Prior to this study, there were a lot of unanswered questions about the risk of developing allergies and asthma in teenage years but now there are hard facts to rely on.

Although this study involved only children from Sweden, experts strongly believe the findings would be comparable if a like study were conducted in the United States because of similar lifestyles. However, additional research has reinforced and supported the Stockholm findings of increased health risks and parental smoking.

For example, although Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, was not involved with the Stockholm study, he agrees with the findings and newly identified risks. Dr. Horovitz is especially impressed with the study based on the large number of children participants but also the long-term follow up.

While millions of people understand the dangers of smoking, there is less awareness specific to secondhand smoking and the health risks it imposes. According to Dr. Horovitz, “I don’t think the message about secondhand smoke exposure has been hammered home”. Today, the link between secondhand smoke and health problems remains somewhat a mystery but medical professionals surmise it has to do with an inflammatory or irritant process.

The good news – today, fewer expectant mothers and parents of small children smoke. However, with this new understanding that health risks associated with secondhand smoke continue well into the teenage years, medical professionals are hopeful that the number of smokers will continue to decline.

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