The single leading preventable cause of death globally is smoking, killing approximately 8 million people. Unfortunately, 600,000 of these are passive smokers. Smoking not only causes respiratory complications, cardiovascular disease and cancer but it also affects the eyes and can even cause loss of vision. Tobacco contains toxins that enter the bloodstream through smoking and are distributed throughout the body, including the eyes. The toxins in cigarette smoke also cause cerebral lesions in the area of the brain responsible for processing vision.
Smoking can lead to eye diseases like dry eyes, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, uveitis, thyroid orbitopathy, optic nerve problems, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). If not discovered and treated in time, most of these conditions can cause blindness. Besides causing internal eye effects, smoking can cause external issues such as swelling under the eyes. Tobacco smoke also affects the lens leading to yellow eyes and other skin disorders around the eyes.
Diabetics, for instance, constitute some of the highest at-risk groups of people since smoking can lead to diabetic retinopathy (DR), a disease caused by damaged eye blood vessels. People who suffer from dry eye disease are also at risk of developing DR since smoking increases dryness and irritation of the eye.
Pregnant women should not smoke at all because smoke can harm the baby through the dangerous toxins transmitted to the placenta. Smoking while pregnant carries the risk of fetal and infant eye disorders in addition to other serious eye problems like strabismus and underdevelopment of the optic nerve (the leading cause of blindness in children).
Women who smoke during pregnancy increase the likelihood of premature births, which increases the risk of eye problems in these babies. Children born prematurely are at a greater risk of developing retinopathy of prematurity which can lead to blindness. Research has also shown that babies born to women who smoke during pregnancy are 5 times more likely to develop meningitis along with other eye infections and problems.
Non-smokers exposed to smoke are equally at risk of developing vision problems. For example, children can develop eye problems such as thinning of the choroid (a retinal layer with blood vessels) which can cause problems with vision.
Smoking is one of the major risk factors for the following eye disorders.
Cataracts (clouding of natural lens) cause blurry and opaque vision and are frequently found among smokers. Cataracts cause sensitivity to light and difficulties driving at night. Tobacco smoke can double the risk of cataract development at an earlier age. Smoking kills off the antioxidants found in your diet, leading to toxin production and cataract formation. It increases free radical amounts in the eyes, damaging proteins and lipids. The damage leads to the formation of deposits on the surface of the lens, and consequently cataracts.
AMD is a condition that damages the macula (a part of the retina), leading to severe impairment or loss of central vision. The macula is responsible for the sharp, central vision you require to perform daily tasks like driving, reading, recognizing faces and colors, etc. Research shows that smokers are 3-4 times more likely to develop AMD than non-smokers. Tobacco smoke causes constriction of the blood vessels in your retina, leading to increased blood pressure and the risk of permanent loss of vision. Smoking also decreases the levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, nutrients that help protect the macula from ultraviolet radiation. Although remedies exist for slowing it down or preventing progression, no cure exists for AMD.
Diabetic smokers carry an increased risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Smoke damages retinal blood vessels, causing them to leak fluid and blood into the eye. The result is a partial or total loss of vision. The risk of developing diabetes and diabetic retinopathy increases by up to 40% with tobacco smoke.
Smoking can damage the optic nerve (it connects the eye to the brain) leading to blindness.
Thyroid orbitopathy affects the thyroid gland leading to exophthalmos (bulging eyes). The disease is more severe in patients who smoke than in non-smokers.
Uveitis is inflammation of the uvea (the eye’s middle layer) and it causes pain, red eyes, and vision problems. Toxins found in tobacco smoke can cause uveitis, leading to retinal and iris damage. Further, uveitis can lead to glaucoma, cataracts, retinal detachment, and permanent loss of vision if not addressed.
Dry eye is a condition where the eyes fail to produce enough tears. Tears help to lubricate the eye’s surface. Tobacco smoke worsens the symptoms of dry eye such as red eyes, foreign body sensation and irritation. Smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke carry a double risk of developing dry eye disease. Contact lens wearers are also at risk.
The best remedy against smoking-related eye problems is to quit smoking. It might not be an easy process but seeking professional advice is a good starting point. Professionals may employ different treatment programs to support you when you decide to quit. Quitting at any age increases the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while reducing the risk of developing or suffering from a number of eye-threatening diseases. The body begins to heal itself once the toxic substance is withdrawn. Another alternative is to seek help from smokefree.gov to begin a new, smoke-free life.
Smoking is a choice, but a costly health choice. The risk of blindness is greater from tobacco smoke, as well as sight-threatening diseases such as AMD, cataracts, dry eyes, uveitis, diabetic retinopathy, optic nerve problems, and thyroid orbitopathy. The only remedy against toxicity caused by tobacco smoke and smoke-induced eye problems is to quit smoking. Not only will it do you good, but it will be beneficial to the health of those around you as well.