As we enter 2022 with Omicron infections peaking, our youngest children are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine, and the ‘typical’ respiratory virus winter season is in full swing. With all these stressors, you may be wondering how to keep your child’s lungs healthy. Thinking about how to best protect their developing lungs is important for setting our kids up for life-long lung health.
The good news is there is plenty you can do! Here are five ways to help keep your children’s lungs healthy:
1. Avoid Smoking
One critical thing you can do is prevent exposure to cigarette smoke. In the short term, cigarette smoke can negatively impact lung growth and increase susceptibility to respiratory infection, and in the long term can lead to chronic lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Protection from smoke exposure is important both during pregnancy and after the child is born. Discourage teenagers from experimenting with cigarettes and avoid second-hand exposure from others smoking in the household.
Another type of smoking that should be avoided is ‘vaping’ or the use of e-cigarettes. This may seem like a safer alternative to cigarettes, but it is not. These products still contain highly addictive nicotine and formulations are not tightly regulated. Be aware that e-cigarettes can be marketed in flavors that are attractive to kids. Some e-cigarette products have been found to contain additives that cause lung inflammation, which in the most severe cases can lead to respiratory failure.
2. Limit Exposure to Pollution
Pollutants such as toxic chemicals or particulates in the air have a clear negative effect on lung health. Many outdoor pollutants in urban areas come from automobile exhaust, industrial sources and construction. Take note of where your child walks or plays and try to reduce proximity to areas of traffic congestion, building projects or factories as much as possible. Outdoor pollutants can also be present in rural areas and include large livestock farms and areas with heavy use of fertilizers. Pollutants can also be present indoors, including house dust mites, cockroaches, wood-burning stoves and volatile chemicals and gases such as radon in the home. To improve indoor air, open windows to allow fresh air to circulate, store volatile chemicals outside of living spaces, check that smoke alarms are functioning, and test the home for radon.
3. Engage in Regular Exercise
Exercise has many health benefits. Specifically for the lungs, inactivity can compress the alveoli (air sacs of the lungs), which we call atelectasis. With exercise, we take in larger breaths, expand the lungs and encourage the opening of alveoli to counteract this process. Furthermore, exercise improves blood flow through the expansive capillary network within the lungs and strengthens the muscles associated with breathing. Spending time exercising in green spaces such as parks and hiking trails will provide an added benefit of reducing exposure to pollution during physical activity.
4. Reduce Frequency of Infections
While admittedly very challenging, especially in young kids who spend time in group settings, is important to reduce the number and frequency of respiratory infections in our children. This is particularly true for our youngest ones, who are still developing their immune systems and whose lungs are undergoing the most rapid growth. Standard hygiene practices such as frequent hand-washing and keeping sick kids home are part of our baseline mitigation measures. As we grapple with the current pandemic, these measures have been expanded to include distancing and mask-wearing to reduce the spread of COVID infection. Recent public access to free high-quality masks through pharmacies can help to bolster our protection when used in the setting of the highly contagious Omicron COVID variant.
An added benefit of masking during the pandemic is that it not only reduces COVID infection but also has had a dramatic effect on other circulating respiratory viral infections like influenza and RSV. Some respiratory viral infections can make young children acutely very sick and have been linked to the development of asthma longer term. Last, vaccination is key to reducing the severity of infection should your children be exposed to respiratory viruses in the community. Seasonal influenza vaccine for all ages and COVID vaccine for eligible children are additional tools to promote healthy lungs and are highly recommended.
Vaccines and boosters for all eligible ages are available through several BJC HealthCare locations, other members of the Pandemic Task Force, or retail pharmacies and vaccine sites across the region. Some pediatrician or primary care offices may also offer the COVID-19 vaccine to their patients, so check with your doctor as well!
5. Healthy Lifestyle
Children should get adequate sleep and eat a diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables to promote growth and a healthy weight. Regular checkups with their pediatrician should be part of their routine as well. Should a child develop a persistent cough, wheezing, or shortness of breath with activity, they should be evaluated on a more urgent basis.