Safety Practices

How Secondhand Smoke Affects the Health of Your Family

The partnership between the Office of Head Start and the Indoor Environments Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aims to reduce young children's exposure to secondhand smoke and other asthma triggers. This tip sheet offers information to caregivers on the dangers of children's exposure to secondhand smoke. Families may use facts in this tip sheet to learn what may happen if they expose their children to secondhand smoke.

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for smokers, but did you know breathing in someone else's cigarette, pipe, or cigar smoke can make you and your children sick. Children who live in homes where people smoke may get sick more often with coughs, wheezing, ear infections, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Children with asthma may have asthma attacks that are more severe or occur more often. 

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke because they are still developing physically, have higher breathing rates than adults, and have little control over their indoor environments. Children exposed to high doses of secondhand smoke, such as those whose mothers smoke, run the greatest relative risk of experiencing damaging health effects. 

You may already know that secondhand smoke:

  • Causes cancer in those who do not smoke 
  • Leads to increased risk, acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma 
  • Exposure during pregnancy causes low birth weight 
  • Exposure from parents or other caregivers causes respiratory illness in infants and children 
  • Causes premature death and disease in adults and children who do not smoke. 
  • Opening windows or using fans or air conditioners will not stop secondhand smoke exposure.
  • Secondhand smoke also can cause lung cancer and heart disease. 

But did you know that … 

  • The U.S. Surgeon General says that secondhand smoke can cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS.
  • The Surgeon General also states exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy or after birth may cause leukemia, lymphoma, and/or childhood brain tumors.
  • It is not just the pregnant woman who should not smoke! Smoking around a pregnant woman can cause her child to have low birth weight.
  • Despite efforts to reduce children's exposure to smoke, children still continue to show toxin levels nearly twice those of adult non-smokers. 
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke actually slows down the growth of children's lungs.

Health Risks to Children with Asthma 

Asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease affecting one in 13 school aged children on average. Exposure to secondhand smoke can cause new cases of asthma in children who have not previously shown symptoms. Exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger asthma attacks and make asthma symptoms more severe. 

Protect Your Family 

Make your car and home smoke free. Family, friends, or visitors should never smoke inside your home or car. You can become a child's hero by keeping a smoke-free home and car. Join the millions of people who are protecting their children from secondhand smoke.