Secondhand Smoke Kills Kids' Cough Reflexes

By Valerie Tejeda 08/21/12

Research finds smoke weakens a child's cough reflex, which is vital to protecting the lungs.

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Kids need to cough. Photo via

Secondhand smoke can impact a child's vital cough reflex, new research finds, which could affect an estimated 18 million US youth ages 12-19, and 60% of children ages 3-11, who are consistently exposed to cigarette smoke. The new study, which appears in Tobacco and Nicotine Research, followed 38 healthy 10-17 year-olds, 17 of whom were regularly exposed to smoke and 21 who were never exposed. The children were then made to inhale concentrations of capsaicin—the chemical in chili peppers that will trigger a cough—from a nebulizer. Though adult smokers are known to have a less sensitive cough reflex compared to non-smokers, parents were also tested by measuring how much capsaicin it took to make the adults cough twice. The study found that the youth who were exposed to secondhand smoke needed twice as much capsaicin to trigger a cough reflex as compared to the non-smoking exposed kids, and the findings were mirrored in the parents. This means that the children exposed to smoke were less sensitive to environmental irritants: “Cough protects our lungs from potentially damaging environmental threats, such as chemicals and dust,” says study lead Dr. Julie Mennella, from Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Living with a parent who smokes weakens this reflex, one of the most vital of the human body.” The study may help explain why diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis are more common among children of smokers. According to study co-author Dr. Paul Wise: “This study suggests that even if an exposed child is not coughing, his or her respiratory health may still be affected by secondhand smoke,” 

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Entertainment journalist and author Valerie Tejeda spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including but not limited to: VanityFair, MTV, The Huffington Post, TeenVogue, She Knows, Latina, The Fix,, Cosmopolitan, and more. You can find Valerie on Linkedin and Twitter.