How Can Smoking Harm Your Vision?

If you’re a smoker, you no doubt know many of the risks – cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema among them. You want to quit; maybe you’ve even tried, multiple times.

If you’re reading this article, we hope that learning about how smoking affects your vision will give you a little extra motivation to quit. Just as it adds risk factors to other diseases, smoke – and the chemicals it contains – can hurt your eyes in multiple ways.


Understanding Smoke’s Impact on the Eye

When you smoke, you inhale the smoke into your lungs. Once any toxic chemical enters the body in any way, it can travel to other parts of the body, through blood or tissue.

To understand how smoke can hurt your eye health, however, it helps to know a little about the structure of the eye itself. You might think that the only part of your eye that would be exposed to smoke would be the very outer part, the cornea.

But the eye is made of tissue and fluid, and constantly absorbs oxygen and nutrients from your tears as you blink. If there is pollution in the air, pollen you are allergic to, or smoke – from a cigarette or from a fire – it affects your eyes. The more you smoke, the more your eyes are exposed to the pollutants.

Toxic Ingredients in Cigarette Smoke

Every time you take a puff of a cigarette or exhale smoke from your mouth, the smoke wafts upward – toward your eyes.

There are as many as 600 ingredients in cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association, and they produce as many as 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke – many of them toxic – according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Some of the most prominent are:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Butane (an ingredient in lighter fluid)
  • Formaldehyde (used in embalming)
  • Acetone (an ingredient in nail polish remover)
  • Methane
  • Arsenic (used in rat poison)
  • Cadmium
  • Benzene (found in rubber cement)
  • Tar
  • Methanol
  • Ammonia (a household cleaner)
  • Lead

“The list of ophthalmologic disorders associated with cigarette smoking continues to grow,” says one ophthalmological study from the National Library of Medicine. “Most chronic ocular diseases … appear to be associated with smoking.”

Long-term Health Effects of Smoking on the Eyes

There are several eye health conditions that have been linked to smoking over time, several with an increased risk over the general population:

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): Macular degeneration is a condition in which the sight is destroyed from the center of your vision moving outward. In other words, you see a dark spot in the middle of your vision, and the dark spot can grow in size until you are legally blind. Smokers are twice as likely to develop macular degeneration as are non-smokers, and the more one smokes, the more the risk increases.
  • Cataracts: By the age of 80, half of all Americans will have cataracts or will have had cataract surgery. The symptoms include cloudy or blurry vision, difficulty seeing at night, the need for brighter light while reading, and colors that have faded or started yellowing. Smokers have been shown to have twice the risk of cataracts as nonsmokers.
  • Dry-eye: This syndrome does not typically cause permanent damage to your vision, but is consistently uncomfortable. A person with dry-eye syndrome does not produce enough tears; smoking makes the condition even more irritating, including a scratchy or burning sensation in the eyes.
  • Diabetic retinopathy: In diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels in your eye become damaged, injuring the retina and permanently damaging your vision. This is the leading cause of blindness in adults between the ages of 25 and 74, according to the National Eye Institute. If you are a smoker, you could have double the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Glaucoma: Glaucoma damages the optic nerve in your eye and causes a gradual loss of sight. A 2017 study found that smokers had a “significantly” higher risk of glaucoma compared to non-smokers. It also found that those who smoked the most cigarettes per year had the highest risk.
  • Uveitis: This is an inflammation of the eye, affecting the middle layer of tissue. It can injure the retina and the iris, can exacerbate other conditions, and can result in complete vision loss. The risk of developing uveitis for smokers is 2.2 times greater than for non-smokers.

Ready to Quit?

If the evidence on how smoking can affect your vision has helped you decide to quit, there are tons of resources available to you. And not all people quit smoking the same way. Some might go cold turkey, others use a nicotine patch, others might try acupuncture. Some do better if they choose a date in the future and prepare, while others quit more impulsively.

The most important thing is that you find a way that works for you. Here are some possibilities:

  • Write down what you like about smoking, what you dislike about it, and all the reasons you want to quit. It’s important to stay in touch with your priorities and motivations. Keep those lists close at hand. This is part of the article “The 23 Best Ways to Quit Smoking” in Reader’s Digest.
  • Have a plan to manage your cravings. You know they’ll come, so be ready. Lay in a supply of gum and mints, chop up a big bowl of fresh veggies to keep in the refrigerator, find a friend to text, or download a new game on your mobile phone to play when you’re trying to distract yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cravings typically last 5 to 10 minutes. Check out more suggestions on managing cravings.
  • Be wise about medications that are used to help you quit. There are seven medications approved by the FDA to help smokers quit, but many people don’t follow the instructions correctly or use them long enough. Talk to your doctor, come up with a plan and make sure you’re following it correctly, says The American Lung Association in “Five Secrets for Quitting Smoking.”

For More Information on the Health of Your Eyes

If you are interested in learning more about smoking-related eye-health issues, or if you have concerns about your vision, call Barnet Delaney Perkins Eye Center at (866) 742-6581 or request an appointment.

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