During the golden age of cigarettes—sometime between the roaring twenties and early sixties, vintage ads featured doctors touting the many “health benefits” of smoking. Most of us now know enough about the harms of cigarette smoking to roll our eyes at that. It’s well known that smoking causes lung cancer. Not many people realize, however, that smoking can also damage vision and even cause blindness. If you’re on the fence about giving up smoking, these additional risk factors may help you see the light.
Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. When cataracts occur, effective treatment options are available to help restore vision. Still, while planning an ideal day, most of us would not schedule cataract surgery. One way to avoid it is to stop smoking. Smokers significantly increase their risk of developing cataracts compared with non-smokers. Cigarette smoking can spur cataract formation in two ways. First, when free radicals present in tobacco smoke contact the eye directly, they can damage lens proteins and the cell membrane of the lens. Second, smoking reduces enzymes and antioxidant levels in the body that might otherwise help remove damaged protein from the lens. Over time, these processes can double or triple a smoker’s risk of developing cataracts.
Smoking is also a significant risk factor for age-related macular degeneration (AMD)—and the most controllable. The more a person smokes, and the longer they smoke, the higher the risk for AMD, the most common cause of blindness in individuals over the age of 55 in developed countries. The disease progressively destroys the macula, the central portion of the retina, impairing central vision. According to a report in the British Medical Journal from public health experts at the University of Manchester, smokers are up to four times more likely than non-smokers to develop AMD.
Another serious eye disease, uveitis, is directly linked to smoking. Uveitis occurs when the middle layer of the eyeball, called the uvea, gets inflamed. The uvea has many blood vessels that nourish the eye. Uveitis can damage vital eye tissue and lead to permanent vision loss.
Smokers are 30%-40% more likely to develop diabetes. One risk of diabetes is blindness due to diabetic retinopathy, a diabetes complication affecting the eyes. Smoking triples-quadruples the progression of diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is caused when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. Smoking causes vasoconstriction, narrowing the blood vessels and reducing blood supply to the eyes. It hardens the arteries, speeding up degenerative processes. Through smoking, eyes are exposed to more damaging chemical compounds while nutrient-rich blood and oxygen supplies to the eyes are reduced.
Does cigarette smoke make your eyes feel dry, gritty, or scratchy? If so, you aren’t the only one. The condition even has a name: dry eye syndrome (DES). Cigarette smoke is a common trigger, containing over 7,000 chemicals that can damage and irritate your eyes, breaking down the protective layer of moisture that helps keep out dust and debris. Chemicals in cigarette smoke can even change the makeup of your tears, leading to additional symptoms.
Smoking is not only bad for your eyes, but can damage the eyes of your unborn child. Fetal exposure to cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke, is associated with an increase in vision problems. For example, when a woman smokes during pregnancy, the baby is at a higher risk for a potentially blinding disease called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). ROP causes vessels in the eye to grow abnormally, spreading throughout the retina, leaking blood into the eye. It can cause scar tissue that can pull the retina away from the back of the eye, causing vision loss. Cigarette smoke is also a known risk factor for strabismus (crossed eyes). A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that babies of mothers who smoked during pregnancy had a 26 percent greater chance of developing this condition.
Stay on top of your eye health by scheduling an annual eye exam to assess for your current eye health and prevent problems. Our Optical Masters team is dedicated to providing you with 20/20 vision (100% sight!) and premium care. We have two convenient Denver locations to meet your needs. Give us a call today at our Leetsdale & Monaco location: (720) 780-8881, or our Evans & Federal Location: (303) 934-0942.