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How does smoking affect your eyes?

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Updated May 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

How does smoking affect vision?
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Question: How does smoking affect your eyes?
Answer: The effects of smoking on your eyes and vision may be significant. You know that smoking tobacco or being exposed to tobacco smoke can cause damage to your health, but it can also increase your risk for developing a number of eye disorders and diseases, including the following:
  • Irritated eyes: Much like alcohol affects the eyes, smoking can cause chronic redness of your eyes. Tobacco smoke, even passive smoke inhaled by children, can alter the tear film of eyes, exacerbating dry eye syndrome and allergic eye conditions.

  • Macular degeneration: People who smoke have four times the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. People who have smoked in the past have three times the risk of having a more severe form of macular degeneration. Interestingly, drinking wine in moderate amounts seems to lower a person's risk of developing the disease.

  • Cataracts: Smoking may increase your risk for developing cataracts, or clouding of the lenses, much earlier and possibly much worse than people who do not smoke. Smoking reduces the supply of antioxidants in our eyes, which may lead to cataracts.

  • Vascular Disease: Smoking contributes to the development of arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, that can contribute to or worsen vascular disease of the eyes. Artery and vein occlusion and optic nerve damage could cause significant vision loss or blindness.

  • Thyroid Eye Disease: People with thyroid disease are at a much higher risk of developing thyroid eye disease if they smoke tobacco. Graves' disease, the most common form of hyperthyroidism, sometimes causes inflammation and swelling in the soft tissues and muscles that surround the eyes, often causing the eyeballs to bulge or protrude from their sockets. If you are diagnosed with thyroid disease, your physician will most likely reccommend that you stop smoking immediately.

  • Optic Neuropathy: Smoking decreases blood flow throughout the body, which could result in damage to the optic nerve. Toxic optic neuropathy, caused by methyl alcohol consumption, results in rapid deterioration in vision and irreversible blindness if not treated within 24 to 48 hours.

    Sources:

    Alexander, Larry J. Primary Care of the Posterior Segment, Second Edition. Appleton & Lange, 1994.

    National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health. "Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration." May, 2010.

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