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Does smoking damage your eyes?

We have heard about the dangers of smoking and its effects on the heart and lungs.  What is not so commonly known is the effect that smoking can have on your eyes and the consequent risk of vision loss.

What are the eye conditions that are associated with smoking?

The toxins in cigarette smoke can not only damage your health, but have been shown to cause a reduction in thickness of layers in the brain and cerebral lesions in the area of the brain that processes vision.  Tobacco products are also a huge risk factor in the development of eye diseases such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, uveitis, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

  • Cataracts. Cataracts are formed when the proteins in the eye’s naturally transparent lens break down causing the lens to become cloudy.  The free radicals in cigarette smoke can cause damage to the lipids and proteins in the lens which leads to cataract development.  Usually an age-related condition, cataracts can cause blurry vision, faded colours and light sensitivity.  Studies have shown that smoking can increase your chances of forming cataracts at an earlier age by double.
  • Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). The macular is the central part of the retina that allows us to see fine details clearly.  It has the finest blood supply in the body and when that blood supply is compromised, deterioration is caused to the macular and your central vision is affected causing blurry vision, distortions and blind spots.  It is believed that smoking interferes with this blood flow to the retina and can increase your risk of developing AMD by up to four times.
  • Uveitis. The uvea is the middle layer of the eye.  When this layer becomes inflamed it is known as uveitis, which is a serious eye disease that can result in complete vision loss if left untreated.  Smoking is believed to lead to the development of uveitis, which can cause damage to the vital structures of the eye, including the retina and the iris.  It can lead to complications such as glaucoma, cataracts and retinal detachment.  Smokers are believed to be more than two times at risk of developing uveitis.
  • Glaucoma. There is a greater risk for people who smoke of having optic nerve problems.  The optic nerve sends visual information from the eye to the brain.  Glaucoma is caused when the nerve cells that make up the optic nerve gradually break down and die causing slow vision loss, beginning with side vision.  This nerve damage can lead to blindness.
  • Diabetic Retinopathy. Smoking can increase your risk of developing diabetes by as much as double.  Diabetes can damage the tiny blood vessels in the retina causing them to break down, leak or become blocked, which can affect vision over time.  This is known as diabetic retinopathy.
  • Dry Eye Syndrome. A common eye condition that is caused by insufficient lubrication of the eyes surface, smokers are twice as likely to suffer from dry eyes.  The toxins in cigarette smoke are known to irritate eyes and can make dry eyes worse, especially for contact lens wearers.  It can lead to redness, itchy and gritty eyes and a burning sensation.

Passive smoking can be almost as harmful as smoking itself when it comes to your eye health and vision.

Can smoking during pregnancy affect your baby’s eyes?

When you smoke during pregnancy, harmful toxins are transmitted to the placenta with the potential to harm your unborn child.  This can increase the chances of many eye disorders:

  • Bacterial meningitis. A condition your child is five times more likely to get if you smoke during pregnancy.  It can cause eye infections and other vision problems in your child.
  • Strabismus (crossed eyes). A condition where the eyes do not properly align with each other.
  • Optic nerve development. Smoking is believed to affect the development of the optic nerve.
  • Retinopathy of prematurity. Smoking during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, which can lead to this serious eye problem.

Toddlers and children are also at risk from second-hand smoke and could be susceptible to eye damage.  There is a study that suggests that children as young as 6 years old already show signs of eye damage.

What happens if I quit smoking?

The good news is that it is never too late to quit smoking, if you want to avoid smoking related vision loss.  Once you have stopped, your eyes can begin to heal the damage done, although it is a slow process.  Over time your risk of developing eye disease gradually improves.  Best of all, if you don’t smoke – don’t start!!