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Parents can add hearing loss to the list of bad things tobacco smoke can do to children.
Previously, prenatal smoking has been linked to negative consequences in children of all ages, including premature birth, low weight or underdevelopment and asthma. Now, a connection also has been made between smoking while pregnant and hearing loss in adolescents, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology.
"Cigarette smoking is probably the worst man-made epidemic," says Michael Weitzman, study author and a professor at the New York University School of Medicine.
In a group of 964 kids ranging in age from 12 to 15 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2005-2006, about 16% of parents confirmed prenatal smoke exposure. In most cases, kids with exposure were roughly three times more likely to have mild hearing loss. Kids without exposure also were found to hear better by three decibels in comparison with those who were exposed.
"Most of the mothers in this particular sample quit (smoking) in the first trimester," says Anil Lalwani, study contributor and professor and vice chairman for research at Columbia University. "Even brief encounters (with tobacco smoke) have negative effects."
The study was unable to determine how exactly the damage is caused while the child is in the womb or what the exact long-term effects may be. But it did report hearing loss could lead to another list of problems for youngsters, including cognitive and behavioral issues affecting academic and social skills, or even other problems down the road such as a lower IQ and dropping out of school.
"Data suggested, whether it's primary or secondary exposure, (prenatal smoking) has detrimental consequences to the auditory system and that damage, though sometimes mild, can have lots of negative effects for the child," Lalwani says.
Weitzman also pointed out that other factors such as loud concerts or blaring headphones may have an influence in the amount of hearing loss in adolescents. But researchers accounted for those differences in the comparisons, and their study still showed an association between prenatal smoking and hearing loss, he says.
Though hearing loss may be moderate, Weitzman says the study is a "brand new discovery of another detrimental effect (of smoking)" and could "raise the possibilities" for advancements in health care and tobacco related research in the future.
Weitzman adds that while some question why specialists continue to study the effects of tobacco smoking, more research could benefit society by encouraging preventive care, screening and future treatments. Otherwise, hearing problems in younger generations are more likely to be left untreated, increasing the likelihood that those people will become deaf at an earlier age.
"Children are the only thing we leave for the future," he says. "Parents' only purpose in life is to keep the species going."
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