From Our 2011 Archives

Secondhand Smoke Raises Kids' Ear Infection Risk

Study Shows Higher Risk of Middle Ear Infection for Children in Homes Where Parents Smoke

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 28, 2011 -- Children who live in homes where parents or others smoke have a higher risk of developing middle ear infections than kids whose houses are smoke-free, a new study shows.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Research Institute for a Tobacco Free Society in the Republic of Ireland say they found that a reduction in secondhand smoke in American homes was associated with fewer cases of otitis media, or what most people refer to as middle ear infections.

Smoke from a burning cigarette combined with exhaled smoke from a person who smokes has been shown to increase unhealthy particles in the air, including those of nicotine and other toxins, the researchers write.

Risks of Secondhand Smoke

The U.S. Surgeon General in 2006 said enough evidence existed to suggest a connection between parents and others smoking and ear infections in children.

Researchers of the news study used data from the National Cancer Institute and found that no-smoking rules in households nearly doubled from 45% in 1993 to 86% in 2006. This increase in smoke-free homes, the researchers say, most likely was the result of increased awareness of dangers of secondhand smoke.

In this same time period, outpatient visits by children with otitis media to doctors' offices or clinics decreased 4.6%; hospitalizations decreased by 9.8%.

"Our study is the first to demonstrate the public health benefits to children of the increase in smoke-free homes across the nation," study researcher Hillel Alpert, ScM, of the Harvard School of Public Health's department of society, human development and health, says in a news release. "If parents avoid smoking at home they can protect their children from the disease that is the most common cause of visits to physicians and hospitals for medical care."

High Cost of Middle Ear Infections

Middle ear infections are the leading cause of visits to medical practices and hospitals among children, costing $3 billion to $5 billion. Visits by children with otitis media increased from 9.9 million in 1975 to 24.5 million in 1990.

But researchers found that the average number of outpatient visits for otitis media in youths 6 and younger dropped 5%, and that hospital discharges fell 10% annually between 1993 and 2006, in large part, apparently, to increased awareness of dangers to kids of secondhand smoke. Another reason, however, may have been a vaccine for pneumonia that was introduced in 2000.

"Smoke-free rules in homes are extremely important to protect children," Alpert says.

The researchers write their study is the first to quantify average annual decreases in pediatric visits by children with middle ear infections over the past decade and a half, a period in which the importance of having smoke-free homes has been stressed.

The study is published on the web site of the journal Tobacco Control.

SOURCES: News release, Harvard School of Public Health.Alpert, H. Tobacco Control, Jan. 26, 2011.

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