How Does Smoking Harm Your Eye Health?
In recent years, we have all become astoundingly familiar with the risks and harms associated with smoking. Once smoke-filled bars and restaurants have become places in which we can breathe freely, smoking is no longer permitted on planes (as we are constantly reminded), and anyone still looking to purchase tobacco or cigarettes must do so at the risk of being faced with gruesome and unsettling images.
But while we may be all too familiar with the connections between smoking, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and even accelerated ageing, many of us remain blissfully unaware of how smoking can affect our eyes.
While most of us will have experienced the discomfort and pain of getting smoke in our eyes -whether from a barbecue or a cigarette, smoking can also affect your eyes in a much more subtle and gradual way.
Smoking is on the decline – but it’s still a threat
It is true that there are fewer smokers today than ever before on record. This is thanks to a crackdown on public smoking and advertising, investment in increased awareness and, of course, improved understanding of the associated harms. All of these measures have helped to convince millions to kick the habit for good.
But despite these significant changes, it is estimated that around 12.9% of adults in the UK are still smoking.
It’s clear then, that education about the harms of tobacco smoking is still very much needed – particularly when it comes to our eye health. So, other than making them sting and water, why exactly is smoking so bad for your vision and eyes?
The real effects of smoking on your eyes
Tobacco smoke contains a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals and compounds, all of which enter your blood when you take a drag on a cigarette. These harmful chemicals – many of which are carcinogens – can damage delicate blood vessels in your eyes and lead to a huge number of complications.
Many studies have highlighted how smoking increases the risk of developing a range of eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and dry eye syndrome.
Many of these issues are irreversible, and if left untreated, can lead to serious vision loss if not blindness.
Here we’re going to take a look at some of the most concerning eye conditions that smoking can both cause and accelerate.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of visual impairment in the UK. It is a progressive disease that can lead to significant vision loss or blindness. AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye responsible for the detailed central area of our vision. Over time, this begins to degrade, causing vision to become increasingly blurry.
If you smoke, AMD can happen much quicker than normal. A 2021 report by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists stated that smokers are more around four times more likely to develop AMD than non-smokers. Smoking harms the tissues within the eye, which can cause them to break down at a much faster rate. In fact, smokers may develop AMD up to 10 years earlier than a non-smoker.
The risks of smoking on the rate of developing AMD aren’t just exclusive to smokers themselves. It’s estimated that even just living with a smoker can double your risk of developing the condition.
Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. They occur when the proteins in the lenses of the eye begin to break down and clump together, forming a cloudy obstruction in the eye. While the development of cataracts is considered a completely natural part of the eye’s ageing process, there are a number of factors that could significantly increase the rate of this development – including smoking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers are two to three times more likely to develop cataracts compared with people who do not smoke.
Thankfully, cataracts are easily treatable with Cataract Surgery. Still, if you could avoid or slow down the development of cataracts, then it’s fair to assume that you would.
Dry eye syndrome
Dry eye syndrome is an increasingly common eye condition that many people experience to some degree or another during their lifetime. It occurs when the tear film in our eyes becomes disrupted.
This can occur for a number of reasons, including using screens for long periods, taking certain medications, or working in dry and dusty environments. One of the biggest factors that can cause dry eyes, however, is smoking.
Studies show that smokers are twice as likely to suffer from chronic dry eye symptoms compared to non-smokers. The condition occurs when the eye fails to produce enough, or the right mixture, of tears to lubricate the surface or when the conditions are bad enough that the eyes cannot keep up with what is happening in the surrounding environment.
Symptoms of dry eye include redness, a gritty feeling, blurry vision, stinging, and general eye strain and discomfort. Tobacco smoke in particular breaks down the lipid layer of the eye’s tear film, leading to such symptoms and more serious effects. Stopping smoking could help to significantly reduce the symptoms of dry eyes and reduce your potential of experiencing further problems in the future.
There has never been a better time to quit smoking
As you can see, smoking can have a significant impact on the health of our eyes. In addition to the conditions mentioned above, smoking can also increase the risk of diabetic retinopathy in people with diabetes as well as progress the severity of other conditions such as Uveitis and Graves’ disease. There truly has never been a better time to quit smoking.