Second-hand smoke or vapour: what is it?
Second-hand smoke or vapour is made up of:
- ‘mainstream’ smoke or vapour, which the smoker breathes out
- ‘sidestream’ smoke, which drifts from the end of a burning cigarette.
Both second-hand smoke and second-hand vapour contain harmful chemicals that children can breathe in. Children most commonly breathe in second-hand smoke or vapour when their parents, family and family friends smoke or vape.
Breathing in second-hand smoke or vapour is sometimes known as passive smoking or vaping.
Third-hand smoke or vapour: what is it?
Third-hand smoke or vapour is what’s left behind when someone has been smoking or vaping. Third-hand smoke or vapour lands and stays on nearly every surface in the area where someone has been smoking or vaping, including on skin, hair, clothing, furniture, flooring and car seats.
This means children are exposed to harmful chemicals even after adults have finished smoking or vaping.
You can’t get rid of third-hand smoke or vapour by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking or vaping to certain areas of a home.
Why second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour are dangerous for children
Second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour are dangerous, especially for babies and children.
This is because second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour can contain harmful chemicals. Babies and children are more at risk from these chemicals because they have smaller airways than grown-ups, and their airways are still developing. Also, babies and children have less mature immune systems than grown-ups.
Babies and young children also spend a lot of time on or near the floor and often put their hands and toys into their mouths. This means they can swallow or breathe in harmful chemicals from third-hand smoke or vapour on the floor and other surfaces.
Child health risks linked with second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour
Second-hand and third-hand smoke
There’s clear evidence that children exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk of early death and disease from various causes.
Second-hand smoke can harm a baby’s breathing, heart rate and growth, which can put the baby at a higher risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI). If parents smoke during pregnancy and after their baby is born, their baby’s SUDI risk increases.
If children are exposed to second-hand smoke, they can have swelling and irritation in their airways. They’re more likely than other children to develop a range of lung and other health problems. These problems include:
- childhood cancers, including leukaemia
- ear infections
- meningococcal disease, including meningitis and septicaemia
Also, exposure to second-hand and third-hand smoke can affect a child’s developing brain because the brain is very sensitive to even very small amounts of harmful chemicals.
Children with existing lung or other health problems are at an even greater risk from second-hand and third-hand smoke.
Finally, when children live in a smoking household, The chance that they’ll take up smoking in adolescence doubles. This puts their health as adults at risk.
Second-hand and third-hand vapour
There’s not yet a lot of evidence about how second-hand and third-hand vapour affects children. But this doesn’t mean that vapes are less dangerous than cigarettes.
Vapes contain some of the same harmful chemicals as cigarettes. This includes nicotine, which is often still included in vapes that are labelled nicotine free. It’s best to assume that all second-hand or third-hand vapour is harmful for children.
Protecting children from second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour
The most important way to protect your child from second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour is to quit smoking or vaping and to support other adults in your child’s life to quit.
This reduces your child’s exposure to second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour. It also gives your child positive non-smoking and non-vaping role models.
If you’re not quite ready to quit, or if someone else in your home smokes or vapes, there are still things you can do to reduce your child’s exposure to the smoke or vapour.
One of the most important things is to make sure no-one smokes or vapes near your child in your house. This means you’ll have to smoke or vape away from your child, and you’ll need to ask other family members, friends, carers and visitors to do the same. Also make sure no-one ever smokes or vapes in an enclosed area near your child.
You might need to explain to friends and family that simply blowing smoke or vapour away from your child doesn’t protect your child from the harmful effects of smoke or vapour. You could say that you want to keep your child healthy by minimising their exposure to smoke or vapour.
When visiting friends or leaving children in someone else’s care, try to make sure the environment is free of smoke and vapour.
Also, never smoke or vape in a car with your child. Opening the car window isn’t enough to stop smoke or vapour affecting your child. Note that it’s illegal to smoke or vape in a car that carries a child under the age of 16 or 18 years. You’ll be fined if you’re caught smoking or vaping in a car that carries children. It’s a good idea to check your state or territory laws to find out more.
Every child has the right to live and grow in a smoke-free and vapour-free environment. This can make a big difference to your child’s health and development. That’s why it’s OK for you to ask friends and family not to smoke or vape anywhere near your child.
Getting help to quit smoking or vaping
If you need more advice about quitting smoking or vaping or the effects that smoking or vaping has on your child, there are services, support and resources available. You can start by talking to your GP or another health professional, or by calling Quitline on 137 848.