Risks to your child’s lungs

How does passive smoking affect children's lungs?

Passive smoking is harmful to children’s lungs. We also have information about vaping, and some tips for giving up smoking.

What is passive smoking?

Passive smoking is when you breathe in tobacco smoke from someone else’s cigarette, cigar or pipe.

Passive smoking before birth happens when the blood of a mother who smokes, is shared with the baby in her womb. This blood contains dangerous chemical from cigarettes.

Babies and children are more likely to be harmed by passive smoking because their lungs haven’t finished growing. Passive smoking can also slow down their lung growth.

One of the best things you can do for your child’s lungs is to make sure they don’t breathe in tobacco smoke.

How can passive smoking harm my unborn baby?

Smoking (or breathing in second-hand smoke) during pregnancy can cause serious harm to your baby. It can:

  • slow down the development of your child’s lungs
  • increase the risk of premature birth and low birth weight. Children born prematurely or with a low birth weight are more likely to develop a lung condition
  • make your child more vulnerable to the air pollution they breathe in the future

What happens when children breathe in tobacco smoke?

Infants and children who are exposed to tobacco smoke are more likely to:

  • develop asthma and have more severe asthma attacks
  • develop infections like pneumonia or bronchiolitis
  • have ear infections
  • wheeze and cough
  • be at risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)
  • take up smoking themselves

Is it OK to smoke when my child isn’t present?

Even if you only smoke away from your children, their lungs can still be affected. It takes an average of 5 hours after smoking before air in a room returns to safe levels. Parents who smoke outside the home and away from their children can still bring smoke home on their clothes. Breathing in this smoke is a risk to children’s lungs.

What about passive exposure to vaping?

Breathing in the vapour from someone else’s e-cigarette is not as harmful in the same way as passive smoking is. This is because the vapour does not contain most of the harmful chemicals present in cigarette smoke. There are no particles of tar, and those chemicals that are present are there only at much lower levels.

Many people do find the vapour irritating so we advise you not to vape around children.

Is it safe to vape while pregnant?

Smoking during pregnancy is a risk to your baby. Protecting them from tobacco smoke during pregnancy is one of the best things you can do to give them a healthy start in life.

If you can’t stop without help, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) using patches, gum or an inhalator is a good option. This is much safer than continuing to smoke.

If you are unable to quit this way then vaping (using an e-cigarette) may help you to stop smoking. It is much safer for you and your baby if you vape instead of smoking.

More research is needed into the effects of vaping in pregnancy. Because of this, some health professionals advise pregnant women to give up vaping. But vaping is much safer for unborn babies than smoking. If vaping is the only way for you to quit smoking, it is better to vape than to smoke tobacco during pregnancy.

Tips for giving up smoking

Stopping is a key way to protect your children’s health in the long term. Children are much more likely to take up smoking if their parents smoke.

  • Be clear about why you want to stop. Use our online questionnaire to remind yourself of your reasons to quit.
  • Tell others that you’re giving up smoking. Making it public can give you the resolve you need.
  • Make a date and stick to it. Tell yourself you will be a non-smoker after this date.
  • Be prepared for withdrawal symptoms. Think ahead and make a plan to help you cope.
  • Ask your GP about treatments and local groups to help you quit.

Giving up smoking can be hard. But it really improves your child’s lung health and yours, too. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. There’s lots of support and information to help you quit.

Related information:

Read more about smoking and how it can impact your lungs.

Next: How does air pollution affect children's 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.