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Smoke and Heat Increase SIDS Risk

Posted on February 20, 2017 by Jeanne Roberts There have been 0 comments

Recent research shows a clear link between cigarette smoking during pregnancy and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS – the sudden, unexplained death of a child younger than one year. Most deaths occur prior to four months, and 90 percent of fatalities occur before six months. SIDS affects slightly more boys than girls.

SIDS Statistics

The incidence of SIDS, also known as “crib death”, is currently about 0.4 deaths per 1,000 births – a rate that has been dropping since 1994 with the onset of no smoking bans in public places and smoking cessation measures.  In 1990, for example, the rate of SIDS among newborns was as high as 1.3 per 1,000 live births.

The results of the study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, came from an extended study of baby rats. The results were then compared to previous studies of babies born to both smoke-free and smoking mothers.

The study evaluated the infants based on four factors:

  • Exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Exposure to infectious bacteria
  • Exposure to low-oxygen environments
  • Exposure to high ambient temperatures

Infants of both species were clearly affected by smoke, and had more episodes of sleep apnea as a result. Sleep apnea is the temporary interruption of breathing – one of the hallmark causes of SIDS.

Inflammatory Reactions, ALI, Cytokine Storms

Rat and human babies also had higher rates of cytokines when exposed to “bad” bacteria. Cytokines are molecular-level proteins that act as messengers from the immune system to the body. Excess reactions are known as “cytokine storms” and have been known to cause extreme inflammatory reactions like ALI (acute lung injury). These reactions can even cause death, especially among newborns, whose immune systems have not achieved stasis, or stability.

Inflammation and immune reactions also caused more rapid heart rates among the very young, and this was especially true at higher ambient temperatures, which is likely why doctors still recommend exposing warmly dressed infants with croup to cold, moving air (i.e., a car ride with the windows down in winter, for example).

Cardiorespiratory Instability, the Primary Cause of SIDS

In simplest terms, the combination of exposures mentioned above created cardiorespiratory instability, and minimizing these exposures was the best way to avoid serious illness and death among very small children. In essence, researchers advocated eliminating or reducing overheating as a result of excessive swaddling or bundling; low-oxygen environments as a result of closed, overheated rooms; exposure to individuals who had a cold, flu or other contagious illness; and cigarette smoke.

Another Source of Smoke: Wildfires

Unfortunately, exposure to other forms of smoke is almost as bad for baby as cigarette smoke. For parents living in the Southeast this winter, where wildfires have consumed an estimated 190 square miles from  Tennessee to Georgia, installing air cleaners in baby’s bedroom – or even in all the major rooms of a home – may be one way to avoid SIDS. Also, keeping windows closed during “bad air days” and running a humidifier may also help, because moist air contains fewer airborne particles.

The Other Danger: Smog

Smog, that mixture of smoke and fog, is the chemical reaction produced by sunlight acting on nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The nitrogen oxides come from fossil-fuel burning power plants and vehicles: the VOCs come from the plethora of chemicals present in any modern city, public building, or even a home.

Those living in major cities like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York, for example – where smog is an inevitable problem and Air Quality Index numbers exceed 150 ppm on numerous occasions – should use the same defense mechanisms to make sure the air inside the home is not depriving their baby or young child of the ability to breathe and survive.

Children, who take in more air per pound of body weight than even large, active adults – and whose respiratory systems are still developing – may experience more severe symptoms than their parents exposed to the same level of pollutants.

Of course, wildfire smoke is also dangerous to pregnant women, old people, and those with chronic heart and lung diseases. This makes use of air cleaners in large, smog-ridden cities almost as important as quitting smoking.

Air cleaners are initially expensive, but the best ones last for years – even decades – require main filter replacement once a year or less, and usually have prefilters that can be washed or vacuumed to preserve the life of the main filter and the machine itself.

Thunderstorm Asthma

A final concern for parents of young children (and caregivers to the elderly or infirm) is “thunderstorm asthma”. Though not caused by smoke – either from cigarettes, fossil-fuel burning, or wildfires – this form of respiratory distress is also the result of particulates which are small enough to penetrate deep into lungs and cause (or exacerbate) asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

The particulates in this case are plant pollens, and researchers suspect climate change is the smoking gun, since it tends to increase the potency of these pollen grains. Again, the best defense is cleaner air.

There is hope for a future cure, however. Australian researchers working at Westmead Children's Hospital in Sydney have found evidence that babies who die from SIDS have low levels of orexin, a brain protein which regulates sleep arousal.


This post was posted in Blog and Green Library and was tagged with acute lung injury, air quality, bacteria, bronchitis, cigarette, COPD, cytokine storm, emphysema, fossil-fuel burning, HEALTH SENSITIVE, immune system, particulates, pregnancy, respiratory system, SIDS, sleep apnea, smog, smoke, sudden infant death syndrome, thunderstorm asthma, VOCs

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