The health risks of smoking are well established, both for smokers and the people who are routinely exposed to their secondhand smoke, including infants. Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which are extremely toxic and can cause cancer.
Newborns are especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke, in part because they breathe faster and partly because their systems are still developing, making them more vulnerable to the chemicals in the smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure in infants has been linked to:
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infants exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for SIDS. This is likely due to the chemicals and toxins in secondhand smoke affecting the brain and altering the breathing of infants. Research has also shown that infants who have died from SIDS have significantly higher levels of nicotine in their lungs in comparison to infants who have died from other causes.
Low Birth Weight: A U.S. Surgeon General’s report found that newborns whose mothers were exposed to secondhand smoke were more likely to have a lower birth weight. This can predispose newborns to other types of health problems, including infections, developmental delay, and learning difficulties later in life.
Respiratory Tract Infections: Infants who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to suffer from respiratory infections, particularly pneumonia and bronchitis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 150,000-300,000 infants up to 18 months of age develop lower respiratory infections as a direct result of exposure to secondhand smoke. Of these affected infants, nearly 15,000 will require hospitalization.
Wheezing: Secondhand smoke can trigger wheezing attacks in infants who have a known history of wheezing and is even thought to cause asthma as children get older.
Ear Infections: Infants are at an increased risk of ear infections, the leading cause of visits to see a doctor, if they are exposed to secondhand smoke.
There are no levels of secondhand smoke that are considered risk-free, as even brief exposures can have negative effects on the health of a newborn or infant.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, December 2018
- The developing bodies of infants make them more susceptible to the effects of secondhand smoke.
- The toxins in secondhand smoke increase a newborn’s risk of SIDS.
- When mothers are exposed to secondhand smoke, they give birth to newborns with a lower birth weight. This increases a baby’s risk for other health problems.
- Secondhand smoke is associated with a higher risk of respiratory infections in infants.