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Risks to your child’s lungs

What are the early life risks to children's lungs?

This section describes some of the risks to children's lungs as they develop in the womb and in early life.

Some risks are genetic. If your child has certain genes (the instructions that tell the body how to grow), this can make them more likely to develop lung problems.

If your child is born too prematurely, or has a low birth weight, they are more likely to have problems with their lungs.

How do my child’s genes affect their lung health?

Studies have shown that certain genes can make children more vulnerable to lung conditions:

  • some conditions, like cystic fibrosis, are caused by a single specific problem with your child’s genes.
  • others such as asthma, are caused by a combination of approximately a dozen genes and many environmental factors like air pollution and infection.

We don’t have all the answers yet but we’re doing research to help understand the role genes play in lung conditions.

What happens when lungs do not grow properly in the womb?

Sometimes, children’s lungs don’t grow properly in the womb. This is very rare.  This results in lungs which are too small or underdeveloped, known as pulmonary hypoplasia.  This usually happens because:

  • their chest cavity or diaphragm hasn’t formed properly or
  • there is not enough amniotic fluid or
  • they don’t have the right amount of lung fluid or lung pressure or
  • the breathing movements they make in the womb are not normal

This is not linked to smoking, air pollution or other environmental factors.

Extremely rarely a child may have no lung at all on one side.  This is called pulmonary agenesis.

Are premature babies more at risk of developing lung problems?

Babies born prematurely have a higher risk of developing lung problems. Their lungs are immature and they are more likely to get an infection.

The more prematurely a baby is born, the more likely they are to be born with problems breathing. This is sometimes called respiratory distress syndrome. 

Some premature babies need a ventilator to help them breathe for a short time. This can lead to scarring of the lungs. 

Being born early affects the way the lungs and airways develop.  When the lungs of premature babies are too immature and not properly developed, this is called bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

Premature babies may be more at risk of a more serious form of an infection called bronchiolitis caused by respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.

While premature birth cannot always be avoided, exposure to tobacco smoke and air pollution are some of the things that make it more likely.

How can a low birth weight affect my child’s lung health?

Children born prematurely will weigh less than children born at full term.

‘Low birth weight’ means babies born weighing less than 2.5kg (5 lbs 8 ozs).

Smoking, air pollution, and diet in pregnancy are some of the factors linked to prematurity and low birth weight in your baby.

Evidence shows that exposure to particulate matter (PM) during pregnancy can also increase the risk of prematurity and low birth weight.

Children and adults who have a low birth weight are more likely to experience wheezing, asthma, respiratory infection and subtle problems with the way their lungs work. Research suggests that being premature, rather than having a low birth weight, may be the most important factor in this higher level of risk.  

If you’re pregnant, the usual healthy lifestyle messages apply. Try to avoid air pollution as much as possible, eat well and don’t smoke.

How do chest infections affect children’s lungs?

Most young children will get infected with a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Most of them will only have cold-like symptoms. But some younger children and infants will develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Children with RSV are more likely to develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia if:

If your child is very ill as a result of RSV infection then they are more at risk of asthma and wheezing later in childhood.

Being exposed to air pollution and tobacco smoke can make the symptoms of infection worse.

Next: Find out what you can do to protect your child’s developing lungs >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.