How to Protect a Child from Respiratory Diseases Like Asthma & COPD
If you are a parent or guardian, then you know what it's like to worry about your children's health, whether it's concern about illnesses, unhealthy environments, or risk for future disease. This worry is natural, and even rational, as early childhood experiences can have an effect your children's long-term health.
Childhood is a particularly vulnerable time for young lungs, in fact, which are much smaller, narrower, and more susceptible to injury compared to adult lungs. Because of this, children's lungs need extra protection from illness and airborne hazards like pollution and smoke.
Unfortunately, lung damage sustained during childhood can significantly increase a child's risk for asthma and lung problems later in life. It can even set the stage for more serious lung conditions that appear in older adulthood, including COPD.
Fortunately, there are a variety of different precautions you can take to minimize your child's risk for lung damage and disease. But in order to do so, you first need to understand children's lung sensitivities and how to recognize a variety of different substances and activities and that are hazardous to their lungs.
That's why we created this guide specifically for parents who want to know how to keep their children's lungs safe and healthy as they grow. It includes dozens of practical tips for reducing the number of respiratory hazards in your child's lives and helpful strategies for creating a more lung-healthy home.
We'll start by explaining how illnesses, environment, and lifestyle can affect your children's lungs and even pre-dispose them to lung problems later in life. Then, we'll explain how to make some simple changes to household habits and routines in order to minimize your children's exposure to respiratory irritants at home.
Finally, we'll discuss what you can do to prepare your children with the knowledge and values they need to take care of their lungs for the rest of their life. In these sections, you'll find helpful advice (curated from experts) for talking to your kids about smoking, as well as additional tips for teaching them the skills they need for good respiratory health.
Why Worry About Lung Disease So Young?
Most serious lung diseases, like COPD, begin in older adulthood, which is usually when the first major symptoms start to appear. Because of this, it might seem strange to start worrying about lung disease so early in your child's life.
However, it's important to understand that COPD is caused by lung damage, and lung damage that leads to COPD usually happens much earlier in life. However, because COPD tends to develop very slowly over the course of many years, the results of that damage might take decades to show.
Most cases of COPD are caused by smoking, but research shows that many other factors besides smoking can contribute to the disease. These factors include early childhood experiences, including respiratory infections and exposure to environmental hazards like smoke.
Because children's lungs are small and still developing, they are even more sensitive to these hazards than adults. This makes them more likely to sustain lung damage from breathing toxic substances, and also increases the risk that this damage will result in long-term effects.
This is also one of the reasons why children develop asthma during childhood, and sometimes later as adults. After all, experts have long known that a child's risk for asthma is strongly influenced by illnesses and harmful substances in their environment.
Because of this, it's particularly important to protect children from lung-damaging substances early in life. Doing so can reduce their risk for lung problems in adulthood, both minor (e.g. reduced overall lung function) and severe (e.g. COPD).
If you are a parent who has COPD, or if you know a loved one with the disease, then you probably have an idea of how terrible and painful it can be. Fortunately, if you are willing to take action in your home and in other areas of your children's lives, you can significantly reduce their risk for lung problems both now and later in life.
Is Your Child At Risk for Lung Disease?
Now that we've established that children's lungs are vulnerable at an early age, let's take a closer look at what specific kinds of things can put their respiratory health at risk. Researchers have identified a number of early childhood risk factors for asthma, COPD, and other lung diseases, most of which you can prevent.
Exposure to Air Pollution and Respiratory Irritants
There are many different kinds of substances that can damage the lungs when you breathe them in, including noxious chemicals, gases, and small airborne particles. Unfortunately, we encounter many of these substances every single day both outdoors and inside our own homes.
Because of this, it's not realistic to avoid respiratory irritants entirely; however, you can take steps to minimize how much and how often your children breathe them in. This is particularly important if your child has asthma or another respiratory condition that makes their lungs extra sensitive to irritation.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce the amount of air pollution and other respiratory irritants your children are exposed to at home. In fact, we'll show you a variety of practical tips and techniques later in this guide to help you make your house a safer environment for developing lungs.
Common respiratory irritants include:
- Air pollution (both indoors and outdoors)
- Fumes from wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
- Chemical fumes from cleaning solutions and household chemicals
- Volatile Organic Compounds (or VOC's) found in products like paints, solvents, perfumes, pesticides, and chemically treated lumber
- Smoke and second-hand smoke
This list covers only a few of many potential respiratory hazards that could affect your children's lungs. We'll go over many more examples, including specific household sources of respiratory irritants, all throughout this guide.
If your child suffers from asthma, that factor alone can make them more likely to develop COPD later in life. In fact, research has established a very strong link between asthma and COPD, especially severe and persistent childhood asthma.
This connection is at least partially caused by chronic inflammation in the lungs and airways, a symptom that both asthma and COPD share. Over time, the inflammation caused by asthma can cause irreversible changes to lung tissues, resulting in airway obstruction and permanent lung function loss.
In other words, asthma can cause the exact same type of lung damage that leads to COPD.
This is known as Asthma-COPD Overlap Syndrome, and it's more common in children who experience severe and frequent asthma symptoms. The risk is much lower for children whose symptoms are mild or well controlled.
Unfortunately, having asthma also makes your child's lungs more susceptible to the damaging effects of respiratory irritants (also known as asthma triggers) like allergens, cooking fumes, and smoke. This means that a child with asthma has a higher risk for COPD if they are repeatedly exposed to these hazards.
Research shows that children who have severe respiratory infections—such as pneumonia and bronchitis—in early childhood are more likely to develop COPD in adulthood. The reason for this is that lung infections can damage the delicate, under-developed tissues in a child's lungs, resulting in respiratory decline and sensitivity that can last for the rest of their lives.
One study, for example, found that people who had a serious respiratory infection before the age of five were more likely to have reduced lung function and asthma in adulthood. It also made them more susceptible to the negative effects of second-hand smoke, which can cause severe asthma symptoms and permanent lung function decline.
The risk for for respiratory problems is higher for children whose infections are severe, repeated, or occur at a very early age. Unfortunately, all of the factors we've mentioned—serious lung infections, asthma, and reduced lung function—are all factors that can increase a child's risk for COPD.
Exposure to Smoke and Second-Hand Smoke
Repeated exposure to second-hand smoke is hard on developing lungs, and it can cause measurable, long-term damage that persists into adulthood. It can also make a child's lungs more prone to future damage, which increases the health dangers of smoking—and exposure to other respiratory irritants—for the rest of their life.
Research shows children who were frequently exposed to second-hand smoke grow up to have poorer lung function in adulthood. These children are also more likely to develop COPD decades later, even if they stay smoke-free throughout their lives.
Even smoking while pregnant (or simply being exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy) can affect your child's long-term health. For example, children born to mothers who smoked while they were pregnant may suffer from permanently reduced lung function and a higher risk for respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD.
However, the potential for respiratory problems is only one of many reasons why you should protect your child from second-hand smoke. Research shows that second-hand smoke exposure during childhood can lead to a variety of serious health problems later in life, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Here is a more extensive list of health problems caused by childhood exposure to second-hand smoke:
- Ear infections
- Tooth decay
- Illnesses like coughs and colds
- Respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis
- Increased risk of developing asthma
- Increased risk of cognitive problems and learning disabilities
- Increased risk for ADHD
- Increased risk for heart disease later in life
- Increased risk of being a smoker
- Acute respiratory symptoms, including:
Negative health problems caused by smoking during pregnancy:
- Lower birth weight (which can lead to other health complications)
- Increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Increased risk for miscarriage and stillbirth
- Increased risk for developmental problems, including learning disabilities
- Reduced lung function
- Increased risk for asthma and other lung conditions
Early Prevention is Key
It's important to realize that lung damage is cumulative, which means that repeated exposure to lung-damaging particles and environments can add up over time. Too much exposure to respiratory hazards over the course of a lifetime can trigger COPD, even if no single event or exposure can be traced back as the cause.
Most people only get COPD from smoking or from exposure to other airborne substances (e.g. chemical fumes and second-hand smoke) if it happens repeatedly over an extended period of time. But because COPD is such a slow-moving disease, it usually takes years for the long-term damage to show.
Part of the reason it takes so long is that lungs are extremely resilient; they have enough extra capacity built in to compensate for a lot of damage. You can lose a surprising amount of lung function before it begins to noticeably affect your ability to breathe.
Unfortunately, this also means that it's impossible to know whether or not you have COPD until your lungs have already been severely damaged by the disease. You have to lose a large percentage of your lung function before you can be diagnosed with COPD, and it's notoriously difficult to catch in the early stages.
Because of this—and the fact that there is no cure for COPD—prevention is absolutely key. The only true way to prevent COPD, however, is to protect your lungs from hazards like air pollution and smoke as much as possible throughout your life.
This should begin in early childhood, when the lungs are particularly vulnerable to the environment. In fact, it should begin in pregnancy, when any harmful substances a mother gets exposed to can lead to health problems after the baby is born.
How to Reduce Early Childhood Risk Factors for Lung Problems
Fortunately, most of the major childhood risk factors for asthma and COPD are preventable as long as you take the right precautions. Let's take a look at some specific actions you can take while your children are young to minimize their lung disease risks.
If you are a smoker, then quitting is—by far—the best thing you can do to keep your children's lungs healthy and safe. After all, research shows that parents are the main source of second-hand smoke exposure during childhood, and that simply living with a parent who smokes can significantly increase a child's risk for lung disease later in life.
One study, for example, found that children who live with a smoker are 31 percent more likely to die from COPD as adults. Smoking can also have an immediate effect on your child's respiratory health, increasing their risk for lung infections and respiratory illness-related hospitalizations.
According to the EPA, second-hand smoke causes up to 300,000 extra cases of lower respiratory tract infections in children under 18 months of age. As we discussed earlier in this guide, childhood respiratory infections are another major risk factor for developing COPD.
Minimize Your Child's Exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution
Outdoor air pollution is a common respiratory hazard that can cause serious damage to lungs. Air pollution is even more dangerous for children because, in addition to being more vulnerable to lung damage, children get higher doses of air pollution due to their faster breathing rate.
In fact, one major air pollution study (pdf link) found that children who grow up in areas with higher than normal outdoor pollution experienced permanent respiratory decline. Their lungs not only developed more slowly than usual, but also functioned less effectively as adults.
Children with asthma are even more sensitive to air pollution, which can exacerbate asthma symptoms and make them more likely to develop other lung problems like bronchitis and COPD. In many cases, the effects of air pollution are irreversible, which means that children who are exposed to heavy air pollution during childhood may have weakened lungs for the rest of their lives.
Because of this, it's a good to get in the habit of checking the the air pollution levels in your city, which can change significantly from day to day. Then, do your best to plan your children's outdoor activities during days when the outdoor air quality is good.
Keep in mind that things like the weather, temperature, and the even time of day can influence both the amount and the types of pollutants in the air. If you keep your children indoors on days when air quality is poor, you can minimize their exposure to the dangers of heavy pollution.
While this might seem inconvenient, limiting how much time your child spends outside breathing polluted air can make a difference in their respiratory health. In most places, you can still ensure plenty of outside playtime on low-pollution days.
However, in some cities, air pollution is so persistent and heavy that it's impossible to avoid. If you live in an area like this, you may have fewer options for protecting your children's lungs.
In some cases, the best option is to move away from the pollution to a city with cleaner air. However, moving your family somewhere new is not a cheap or easy task, and it's simply not a realistic option for many.
But even if you can't get away from polluted outdoor air, what you can do is put extra effort into protecting your children from the respiratory hazards that you do have the power to control (e.g. smoke and chemical fumes). You should also watch your children closely for persistent respiratory symptoms that could indicate a developing problem with their lungs.
Protect Your Child from Respiratory Illnesses
As we've mentioned a couple times already, serious respiratory infections can significantly increase your child's risk for asthma and COPD. That's one reason why it's important to take precaution to prevent your child from getting sick.
Most common respiratory illnesses are minor, but young children have a higher risk of developing complications. If the illness becomes serious, it has the potential to cause permanent lung damage that will follow them through the rest of their lives.
The best way to prevent the spread of illnesses is to practice proper hygiene and teach your kids to look after their own hygiene, too. You should also take care to keep your children away from other children or adults who are sick.
If your child does get sick a with respiratory illness, you should keep a close eye on their symptoms until they get better. Over time, even a simple cold or flu can turn in to a more serious infection like bronchitis or pneumonia.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell the signs of a respiratory infection apart from a less serious illness like a cold, so don't hesitate to call the doctor if you are worried about your child's symptoms. You should also take them to the doctor if their symptoms become severe or if they don't start to get better after being sick for several days.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of pneumonia in children to look out for:
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Exerting extra effort to breathe
- A grunting or wheezing sound with breathing
- Shaking or chills
- Pain in the chest and/or abdomen
- Fatigue or reduced energy
- Loss of appetite
- Bluish or gray skin color in the lips or fingernails (this is a sign of a medical emergency)
If you notice any of the above symptoms or otherwise suspect your child might have pneumonia, you should take them to the doctor right away. You should also make sure your child is up to date with all their vaccinations, but especially those that protect against respiratory illnesses like whooping cough, pneumonia, and influenza.
You should be extra cautious with children under the age of five, whose lungs are the most sensitive to to the damaging effects of infection. After all, pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death in young children, especially children under the age of two.
How to Create a Lung-Healthy Environment at Home
Believe it or not, the place where your children are most likely to be exposed to hazardous respiratory irritants is inside their own home. There are two main reasons for this: First, children tend to spend a large quantity of their time indoors, and the majority of that time is spent at home.
Second, many homes have poor indoor air quality due to unhealthy levels of airborne particles and fumes. In fact, research shows that a large percentage of houses have air quality that's poor enough to cause noticeable respiratory effects, especially in children with asthma.
Because of this, one of the best ways to protect your child's lungs is to minimize the amount of respiratory hazards they are exposed to at home. There are many simple ways to this, including removing sources of airborne irritants and making adjustments to household habits (e.g. cooking and cleaning).
Keep Your Home Smoke Free
Tobacco smoke, and smoke in general, is one of the most dangerous respiratory hazards you can have in your home. Even long after the source of smoke is gone, dangerous gases and airborne particles can persist for days or even months indoors.
As a result, no amount of indoor smoking is ever considered safe, especially in a house with children. Even if you only smoke in the house when your kids are not around, the air will still be contaminated when they return.
Because of this, making your house 100% smoke free is a vital part of creating a safe and clean environment for your kids. That means prohibiting any kind of smoking inside your house, and also outside the house near any open windows and entrances that could allow the smoke to drift indoors.