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Ask Dr. Sears: Second-Hand Smoke Dangers

Q. I live in an apartment, and am a non-smoker. However, with the constant cigarette smoke odor coming through my air vents, one may think I smoke as strong as the odor is. It's so strong that I can't help but wonder if it is contributing to my infant's respiratory problems and ear infections. Is it possible for the air coming through my vents to be so polluted by the smoke that it is making him sick?


A. The combination of you smelling the smoke and your infant's respiratory infections and ear infections certainly implicate cigarette smoke as the culprit. First, report this to the owner of the apartment building. Let the owner know that something is drastically wrong with the air-circulation system. Perhaps even send him a copy of this answer. Open your windows to allow fresh air into your apartment as much as possible, in addition to spending a lot of time outside, weather permitting. Here's an analogy that I use in my practice to both inform, and admittedly scare, parents from smoking. Suppose you were about to take your baby into a room when you notice a sign that read: "Warning! This room contains poisonous gases and around 4,000 chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer, lung damage, and are especially harmful to the breathing passages of young infants." Certainly, you wouldn't take your baby into this room. Yet, this is exactly the risk that occurs when babies are exposed to second-hand smoke. Here's how second-hand smoke can be hazardous to your baby's health:

Exposure to smoke hurts little lungs. Lining the breathing passages going to the lungs are millions of tiny filaments, called cilia, which wave back and forth to clear the normal secretions from the airways. Smoke paralyzes these cilia so that a baby is unable to clear these secretions. This leads to plugs of mucus blocking the airways, resulting in infections anywhere along the airways, including ear and sinus infections. Also, cigarette smoke is highly-allergenic, causing stuffy and blocked nasal passages that further compromise breathing. Studies show that children who are around cigarette smoke have two to three times more doctor visits because of respiratory infections.

Exposure to smoke injures little brains. Nicotine constricts blood vessels, which can lower blood supply to the developing brain. Cigarette smoke lowers the oxygen level of the blood, which can interfere with the development of the brain center that controls breathing.

Exposure to smoke hurts little hearts. Studies have shown that levels of HDL, known as the "good cholesterol" that may protect from heart disease, are lower in children who are exposed to second-hand smoke.

Exposure to smoke interferes with natural mothering. A health hazard of smoking that few people know about is how exposure to cigarette smoke interferes with natural mothering hormones, especially those that are involved in the production of breastmilk and mother's intuition. Studies have shown that mothers who smoke have a lower level of prolactin, the hormone that regulates milk production and is thought to be part of the biological basis of that extra sensitivity and awareness that mothers have toward their babies.

Exposure to smoke can increase the risk of SIDS. Many studies show that exposure to cigarette smoke can greatly increase the risk of SIDS. The reason is thought to be that the chemicals in cigarette smoke lead to an overall delay in the development of all the organs and systems, especially the center of the brain that controls automatic breathing.

The above harmful effects of cigarette smoke should be enough to prompt the apartment owners to immediately fix the ventilation problem. If possible, I suggest moving to cleaner-air living as soon as possible, for your own health as well as the health of your baby.

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