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S P E C I A L Tobacco Under Attack

Ear infections in children linked to secondhand smoke

Baby and Doctor
Middle ear infection affects nearly half of all children by age 3

Cost in U.S. alone is $3.5 billion

February 10, 1998
Web posted at: 6:00 p.m. EST (2300 GMT)

(CNN) -- Canadian researchers say that children who are exposed to cigarette smoke during the first three years of life have almost double the risk of frequent or persistent ear infections.

The study from the University of Calgary in Canada checked 625 first-grade students at 36 Calgary schools. Nearly a quarter of the children had a history of middle ear infections.

But children who lived in homes where there were two or more cigarette smokers during the first three years of life had an 85 percent higher than normal history of persistent or recurrent middle ear infections, the report said.

"Environmental tobacco smoke is an important risk factor for middle ear disease in urban preschool age children, even in a relatively affluent population," the researchers said.

The findings appeared in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which is published by the American Medical Association.

Cost in U.S. alone is $3.5 billion

Many parents believe they spare their children the harmful effects of cigarette smoke if they don't smoke around the children, but doctors say that isn't true.

Wendell Todd
Dr. Wendell Todd

"The tobacco smoke remains in the parent's clothing, remains on the parent's breath," says Dr. Wendell Todd, a pediatrician. "So the child is exposed to some even though the actual smoking is happening in a separate place."

Exactly how secondhand smoke contributes to middle ear infections is not clear, but a possible cause is a reduced immune response that leads to more upper respiratory tract infections. Also, doctors suspect that smoke may irritate the tissue surrounding the respiratory system.

"Inflammations can happen from other things than infection," Todd says, "and air pollution and tobacco smoke contribute to inflammation in the middle ear."

Middle ear infection -- technically called otitis media -- afflicts nearly half of all children by age 3. The infections cause fluctuating hearing loss, which can slow development in learning language and motor skills.

The infections are the most common reason for the use of prescription drugs in young children, and cost the health care system each year more than $3.5 billion in the United States alone.

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and Reuters contributed to this report.

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