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Tobacco Smoke’s New Danger for Kids

Experts estimate that one in four kids and teens is exposed to tobacco smoke at home and more than one in five high school students and middle schoolers ride in cars while others are smoking. This can cause problems that a parent would never have imagined.

By Sari Harrar

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing recently found that kids whose mothers were exposed to secondhand smoke were more likely to have behavior problems than kids whose moms avoided tobacco smoke during pregnancy.

It was already known that smoking during pregnancy boosted kids' risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low birth weight, respiratory problems and other negative health effects.  "Such findings could inform public health efforts to reduce public smoking and underscores the need for including [environmental tobacco smoke] avoidance as a potential component of prenatal care among pregnant women," said leadauthor Jianghong-Liu, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor at Penn Nursing.

Using data from 646 mother-and-child pairs in China, where more than 70 percent of men smoke, Liu concluded that 25% children of whose mothers were exposed to smoke exhibited behavior problems compared to 16% of children of unexposed mothers.Problems included trouble paying attention and aggression. Children of passive-smoking mothers also had worse performance on tests of speech and language skills and intelligence.

"The key message for pregnant women is to protect their growing fetus from exposure to secondhand smoke," Liu noted.

Secondhand smoke also has health effects on kids and teens themselves -- and plenty of kids are exposed. Experts estimate that one in four kids and teens is exposed to tobacco smoke at home and more than one in five high school students and middle schoolers ride in cars while others are smoking. Among the problems this can cause:

A dulled cough reflex. Recent research from Philadelphia's Monell Center reveals that exposure to secondhand smoke decreases sensitivity to cough-eliciting respiratory irritants in otherwise healthy children and adolescents. The findings may help to explain why children of smokers are more likely to develop pneumonia, bronchitis and other diseases and also are more likely to experiment with smoking during adolescence.

An irritated bladder.  A 2012 study from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has shown that second-hand cigarette smoke was associated with moderate to severe irritative bladder symptoms in children.The study included children aged 4 through 17 who sought care of a pediatric urologist for irritative bladder storage symptoms including urinary urgency, increased urinary frequency and incontinence.  One in four had been exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. More than half of the children in the study had moderate to severe symptoms; among them, half were exposed to cigarette smoke within a car and one in four had mothers who smoked.

Decreased lung function -- especially for girls. University of Cincinnati researchers found earlier this year that children exposed to high levels of secondhand smoke who also had allergic sensitizations during early childhood were at greater risk for decreased lung function at age 7 compared to children who had not developed allergic sensitizations by this age.  Lung function among girls was six times worse than in boys who were exposed to similar levels of both secondhand smoke and allergen sensitization.

Higher blood pressure for boys. In a 2011 study, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that exposure to secondhand smoke, even at extremely low levels, is associated with increased blood pressure in boys.