Second-hand smoke: what is it?
Second-hand smoke is made up of:
- ‘mainstream’ smoke, which the smoker breathes out
- ‘sidestream’ smoke, which drifts from the end of a burning cigarette.
Second-hand smoke contains toxins that babies and children can breathe in. Children most commonly come into contact with second-hand smoke when their parents, family and family friends smoke.
Breathing in second-hand smoke is sometimes known as passive smoking.
Third-hand smoke: what is it?
Third-hand smoke is what’s left behind when someone has been smoking. Third-hand smoke 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 toxins from cigarettes, even after adults have finished their cigarettes.
You can’t get rid of third-hand smoke by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or by confining smoking to certain areas of a home.
Why second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke are dangerous for children
Second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke are dangerous, especially for babies and children.
This is because babies and children 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 toxins from the third-hand smoke on the floor and other surfaces.
Child health risks linked with passive smoking
Children exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk of early death and disease from various causes.
For example, 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). 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.
And 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
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.
Children with existing lung and other health problems are at an even greater risk from second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke.
Children who live in a household where one or more adults smoke need to go to the doctor more often. And the chance that they’ll take up smoking in adolescence doubles.
Protecting children from second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke
The most important way to protect your child from second-hand and third-hand smoke is to quit smoking 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. It also gives your child positive non-smoking role models.
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. You could say that you’re keen to keep your child healthy by minimising their exposure to 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. It’s illegal to smoke in a car that carries a child under the age of 16-18 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.
Every child has the right to live and grow in a smoke-free environment. This can make a big difference to children’s health and development. That’s why it’s OK for you to ask friends and family not to smoke anywhere near your child.
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.