What are the early life risks to children's lungs?

This section is about other risks to children’s lungs as they develop in the womb, and in early life.

How can my child’s genes affect their lung health?

Some risks to children’s lungs are genetic. This means that it can be passed on through family members.

Studies have shown that certain genes (instructions that tell the body how to grow) can make children more vulnerable to lung conditions.

  • Some conditions, like cystic fibrosis, are caused by a single specific problem with a child’s genes.
  • Others such as asthma, are caused by a combination of genes and many environmental factors like air pollution and infection.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re doing research to help understand the role genes play in lung conditions.

What happens when lungs do not grow properly in the womb?

Sometimes, children’s lungs don’t grow properly in the womb. This is very rare. This can result in lungs being too small or underdeveloped, known as pulmonary hypoplasia. This can happen when:

  • the chest cavity does not grow properly
  • there is not enough amniotic fluid (the fluid that surround your baby in the womb)
  • there is not the right amount of fluid or pressure in their lungs
  • the breathing movements they make in the womb are not normal.

In extremely rare situations, a child may have no lung at all on one side. This is called pulmonary agenesis.

Are premature babies more at risk of developing lung problems?

Babies born prematurely (before week 37 of pregnancy) have a higher risk of developing lung problems. This is because their lungs aren’t fully grown, and they are more likely to get infections.

The more prematurely a baby is born, the more likely they are to be born with breathing problems. This is sometimes called newborn respiratory distress syndrome. Premature babies may also be at risk of:

  • lung scarring. Some premature babies need a ventilator (breathing machine) to help them breathe for a short time. Despite being vital for their care, ventilation can lead to scarring of the lungs
  • bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Being born early affects the way the lungs and airways develop. When the lungs of premature babies are not properly developed, this is called bronchopulmonary dysplasia
  • viruses such as bronchiolitis and RSV. Premature babies may be more at risk of a more serious form of an infection called bronchiolitis caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

While premature birth cannot always be avoided, exposure to tobacco smoke and air pollution are some of the things that make it more likely.

How can a low birth weight affect my child’s lung health?

‘Low birth weight’ means babies born weighing less than 2.5kg (5 lb 8 oz). Babies born prematurely will weigh less than babies born at full term.

Smoking, air pollution exposure, and diet in pregnancy are some of the factors linked to prematurity and low birth weight in your baby.

Babies who have a low birth weight are more likely to experience wheezing, asthma, respiratory infection and problems with the way their lungs work in later life. Research suggests that being premature, rather than having a low birth weight, may be the most important factor in this higher level of risk.

However, it’s important to know that not every baby born prematurely or with a low birth weight will have problems.

If you’re pregnant, the best thing you can do for your health is to not smoke, avoid air pollution as much as possible, and eat well.

How can poor nutrition affect children’s lungs?

The mother’s diet during pregnancy and the diet your child has growing up can impact their lung health. If your child is not getting the right amount of nutrients, they may be underweight or overweight.

Diet during pregnancy

It’s important to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet while pregnant. Studies have shown that diet during pregnancy can affect your child’s lung health.

Eating healthily during pregnancy will help your baby to develop fully. A poor diet may lead to your baby having a low birth weight and this increases the risk of lung problems for them in the future.

Malnutrition in children

Malnutrition, often called poor nutrition, is when a diet does not contain enough nutrients. If your child is underweight, they are at increased risk of respiratory infections and illness. This is because nutrition in early life affects how the lungs and immune system develop.

Find out more about eating well.

Obesity in children

If your child is overweight and eating an unhealthy, high-fat diet, they’re more likely to develop respiratory conditions such as asthma. This is because rapid weight gain can damage the airways.

Read more information about eating well and exercising.

How do chest infections affect children’s lungs?

Around 80% of children will get infected with a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) by the time they’re two. Most of them will only have cold-like symptoms. But some younger children and infants will develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Children with RSV are more likely to develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia if:

If your child is very ill as a result of RSV infection, then they are more at risk of asthma and wheezing later in childhood.

Being exposed to air pollution and tobacco smoke can make the symptoms of infection worse.

Next: Protecting your child's lungs

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