May 1, 2001 (Baltimore, Md.) -- If you need another reason to give up smoking, consider the dental health of your children. That's what researchers from the University of Rochester hope parents will do as a result of their new study which finds that children exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to develop cavities.
Researcher C. Andrew Aligne, MD, assistant professor of general pediatrics at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) School of Medicine, notes that passive, or second-hand smoke, is already linked to a number of health hazards ranging from respiratory problems to cancer.
"It therefore seems plausible that [second-hand smoke] ... might also be a risk factor in dental caries," says Aligne. He presented his findings at the Pediatric Academic Societies' Annual Meeting held here this week.
While the number of cavities has generally gone down in the population in the last few years, that's not true among poor children. Dental problems aren't trivial, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. In addition to causing pain and suffering, children lose 50-million hours of school annually because of bad teeth. Children with cavities also experience problems with eating, speaking, and difficulty in learning.
To find out if there was a connection between smoking parents and cavities, Aligne and colleagues looked at federal health data on nearly 4,000 children, aged 4-11. Although this is the first such study in the U.S., a similar study conducted in Great Britain found there was a connection between passive smoking and cavities.
The researchers evaluated the children's dental records. And they assessed smoking exposure by measuring the blood for cotinine, a by-product of nicotine.
While the problem persists largely in low-income families, the research turned up some interesting general connections between passive smoking and oral health.
For instance, the rate of cavities in children was nearly double in smoking households, even after considering a number of variables including sex, race, dental visits, family income, and nutrition status. In addition, there was what doctors call a dose-response curve -- that is, the more exposure the kids had to passive smoke, the greater the amount of nicotine in their bodies.
Although the researchers detected cavities in both baby teeth and permanent teeth, passive smoking was only associated with decay in the baby teeth.
"For parents, it's not a good idea to smoke around your kid. This is potentially just one more reason on top of all the other good reasons [to quit smoking]," says Aligne.
It's not clear exactly how passive smoking causes cavities, although the nicotine may lead to infections. "What I think is the most powerful potential mechanism is smoking during pregnancy, because it causes low birth weight, and prematurity, and poor growth, including problems with tooth formation," Aligne tells WebMD.
Ultimately Aligne estimates that children who are captives of their parents' exhaled smoke will wind up with some four million excess cases of cavities in these early years of life when they're most vulnerable.
So if your child doesn't get a "Happy Tooth" on his or her next visit, it may be because of too much smoke and not too many sweets. Aligne says it's worth a discussion with your doctor or dentist.