It goes without saying that smoking is an extremely harmful habit that affects almost every organ in the body, and this includes the eyes. Whilst the damage that smoking can have on the heart and lungs is common knowledge, the harm it can cause to your eye health is lesser known, however, according to the NHS, smokers are twice as likely to lose their sight compared to non-smokers.
Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 harmful substances, including carcinogens, irritants and inflammatory agents- all of which affect all areas of the body. When it comes to eyes specifically, cigarette smoke actually causes biological changes which can lead to damaged blood vessels, poorly functioning tear ducts, oxidative stress and in more serious cases, vision loss.
In 2017, a study carried out by the Macular Society showed that 53% of people weren’t aware that smoking can actually cause blindness. This lack of understanding signifies just how important it is to make smokers aware of the risks, and not just for their own health- passive smokers are also at risk of smoking-related eye problems.
In this blog, we go into more detail about the specific eye diseases that are a direct result of or made worse by smoking, before explaining the benefits of kicking the habit for your eye health.
When it comes to eye health, there is a breadth of different issues that can significantly impact the way you see the world- sometimes even leading to total vision loss. If you’re a smoker, your chance of developing an eye illness is much more likely and more generally, your eye health will deteriorate much more rapidly due to the constant exposure to irritable tobacco smoke. There is a strong correlation between smoking and a number of different eye problems; below, we explore what these are.
Cataracts are a well-known eye problem that affect both humans and animals alike. Cataracts cause the eye’s natural lens to become cloudy and misty, which obviously makes vision less effective. Cataracts are common amongst elderly people, however, if you are a smoker, your risk is significantly increased- in fact, the chance of developing cataracts is almost doubled.
Research has confirmed a direct link between smoking and cataracts, and although it’s treatable and won’t lead to blindness in most cases, the treatment is a rather intrusive operation which involves replacing the eye’s lens. It’s a particularly unpleasant procedure that can be easily avoided by stopping smoking early.
Despite the fact that it’s called ‘age-related’ degeneration, there is a direct link between AMD and smoking and whilst sufferers to tend to be of a certain age, those who smoke are at a much greater risk of developing the condition. According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), smokers are four times more likely to develop AMD in their later years, or even be diagnosed prematurely.
AMD is the UK’s leading cause of blindness and affects the centre of the retina. This limits sufferers' ability to carry out everyday tasks, such as reading and driving. Blind spots develop in the centre of the eye, impairing your central vision. Unfortunately, there are very few effective treatment options for AMD, which is why it’s even more important to stop smoking before the disease takes hold in later life.
This is a related eye disease that is associated with how many cigarettes are smoked each day. Graves-disease is when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, causing problems to many parts of the body, but particularly the eyes. Sufferers may experience a protrusion of the eyes, double vision and issues with the muscles around the eyes. In severe cases, it can lead to permanent visual impairment. The specific effect that Graves-disease has on the eye is also known as thyroid eye disease (TED) or Graves’ orbitopathy (GO).
If you suffer from TED, the muscles and soft tissues in and around your eye socket begin to swell. When your eye is inflamed, this is known as the ‘active’ stage and will generally resolve naturally over time, usually between six months to two years.
Yet, if you smoke, the active stage will not only last much longer, but you’re also more likely to be left with lasting damage to the appearance of your eyes. Whilst this can be amended and treated, quitting smoking is a much easier route to take before you’re left with lifelong eye problems.
Optic neuropathy is an extremely distressing condition as it causes a sudden loss of vision and often leads to permanent blindness. It happens when the blood vessels to the eyes are completely or partially blocked. If you smoke, you are 16 times more likely to develop this debilitating condition and you could develop it up to 12 years earlier than non-smokers.
To ensure your eyes stay lubricated and healthy, your body produces natural moisture through your tear ducts. When there is insufficient moisture in your eyes, this is referred to as dry eye syndrome. If you suffer from this uncomfortable condition, you’ll experience eye redness, itchiness and a ‘foregin body’ sensation- the feeling of there always being something stuck in your eye. Strangely, you may also have overly watery eyes, however the moisture produced isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.
Tobacco smoke is a known irritant which will worsen dry eyes no end, particularly if you wear contact lenses. A smoker themselves is twice as likely to have dry eyes, whilst those around them who are second hand smokers are also at risk of suffering from dry eye syndrome.
Smoking increases your chances of developing diabetes and also makes it - and it’s related complications - more difficult to manage. Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes that affects the tiny blood vessels in the eye. The condition breaks down the blood vessels and in severe cases, causes new blood vessels to form on the surface of the eye. Smoking makes the problem much worse and will likely affect the appearance and functionality of your eyes more.
It’s widely known that smoking when pregnant will cause problems for your unborn child, infant eye diseases included. Pregnant women who choose to smoke will transfer toxins from the cigarettes to the placenta which can harm the eye health of the baby and potentially trigger irreversible vision problems.
Fetal and infant eye disorders that are caused by smoking include strabismus (or crossed eyes) and the underdevelopment of the optic nerve, which is a leading cause of blindness in children. If you’re hoping to conceive and you’re struggling to kick the habit, considering the eye health of your future child may give you the motivation you need.
Along with diet and rest, stopping smoking is the single most important lifestyle factor when it comes to eye health, protecting your eyes and improving the quality of your sight. Furthermore, when you stop smoking, you’re also investing in the eye health of those around you because even passive smokers are at risk of the above conditions. Apart from the obvious health benefits, giving up cigarettes has been associated with various benefits for eye health, including:
- A reduced risk of the need for surgical cataract extraction, which as mentioned earlier, is an unpleasant procedure. Your risk will slowly reduce over time, however it takes between 10 and 20 years of smoke-free life for the risk to drop to that of non smokers.
- A decrease in the development of AMD. Whilst it takes around 20 years after stopping to reduce the risk to the level of non smokers, studies show that the risk drops by 6.7% after one year of stopping, and a further 5% after five years.
- A reduction of the risk of anterior ischemic neuropathy to that seen in non-smokers. This is a common cause of optic neuropathy amongst elderly people and is a result of insufficient blood supply.
- An improved response to treatment for Graves-disease. There are various treatments available, ranging from cold compresses and drug treatment for mild cases to radiation and surgery for the most stubborn cases.
If you’re concerned about your health and you want to give up smoking, the NHS Smokefree is a programme that has helped millions of people give up cigarettes for good. Equally, your local GP will provide a stop smoking service where you can work through your habit with like-minded individuals in your community and begin your journey towards a healthier lifestyle.
To find out more about specific smoking-related eye problems, it’s a good idea to arrange a vision test with your optician. They can discuss the risks with you and support you in giving up, enabling you to protect your eyes and vision for good.
David Paul Opticians: Offering expert eye health advice, routine eye tests and stylish eye wear in Berkhamsted
If you’re based in the Berkhamsted area and you’re looking for expert eye care near you, choose David Paul Opticians. We offer a comprehensive eye care service, with everything from advanced eye examinations and retinal imaging to designer sunglasses and prescription glasses. With over 30 years of experience, we’re proud to provide a trusted service to all of our customers, giving them unparalleled eye care at a price that works for them.
If you smoke and you’re concerned about the condition of your eyesight, our team of opticians can give you the advice and support you need to improve your eye health. Our eyecare specialists take the time to get to know each and every customer, offering a personalised and non-judgemental service with an ultimate goal of improving general eye health and enabling everyone to enjoy near-perfect vision.