Second-hand smoke is made up of ‘mainstream’ smoke, which the smoker breathes out, and ‘sidestream’ smoke, which drifts from the end of a burning cigarette.
Children most commonly come into contact with second-hand smoke when their parents, family and friends smoke.
Breathing in second-hand smoke is sometimes known as passive smoking.
Third-hand smoke is the smoking residue that lands and stays on nearly every surface in the area where someone has been smoking, including on skin, hair, clothing, furniture and flooring.
This means babies and children are still exposed to the harmful chemicals in cigarettes even after adults have finished their cigarettes.
Why second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke are dangerous for children
Second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke are especially dangerous for babies and children.
This is because babies and children have smaller airways and less mature immune systems than grown-ups.
Babies and 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 might swallow or breathe in toxins from third-hand smoke.
Health risks linked with passive smoking
Children exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk of premature death and disease.
Second-hand smoke can impair a baby’s breathing and heart rate, which can put the baby at a higher risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs) and fatal sleeping accidents. If parents smoke during pregnancy and after their baby is born, their baby’s SUDI risk increases. The more second-hand smoke a baby is exposed to, the higher the risk of SUDI.
If children are exposed to second-hand smoke, they can have swelling and irritation in their airways. They’re also 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
Exposure to second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke can affect a child’s developing brain because the brain is very sensitive to even very small amounts of toxins.
Protecting your child from second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke
The most important way to protect your child from second-hand smoke is to quit smoking.
This reduces your child’s exposure to second-hand and third-hand smoke. It also gives your child a positive non-smoking role model.
If you’re not quite ready to quit, or if someone else in your home smokes, there are still things you can do to reduce your child’s exposure to the smoke.
One of the most important things you can do is to make sure no-one smokes near your child in your house or car. This means you’ll have to smoke away from your child, and that you’ll need to ask other family members, friends, carers and visitors to do the same. Also make sure no-one ever smokes in an enclosed area near your child.
You might need to explain to friends and family that simply blowing smoke away from your child doesn’t protect your child from the harmful effects of smoke.
When visiting friends or leaving children in the care of someone else, try to make sure the environment is free of smoke.
Never smoke in a car that carries children. Opening the car window isn’t enough to stop smoke affecting children. In most Australian states, it’s illegal to smoke in a car that carries a child under the age of 18 years. You’ll be fined if you’re caught smoking in a car that carries children.
The only way to protect children from third-hand smoke is to have a smoke-free home and car.
Getting help to quit smoking
If you need more advice about quitting smoking or the effects that smoking 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.