Smoking and Your Eye and Vision Health

October 30, 2015

Stack of cigarettes

By now, most of us are well aware of how bad smoking is for our health. However, the specific risks that smoking poses for our eyes and vision is not so well known. Dr. Julia Appel, associate clinical professor and a member of the primary care service at the University Eye Center, provides a closer look at the ramifications that smoking can have on your eye and vision health.

Question: The overall dangers of smoking have been known for quite some time, however, can you discuss some of the specific ways in which smoking can affect eye and vision health?

It is unfortunately true that most people are not aware of the many ways smoking can affect the eyes. From the surface structures of the eye, to the complex way the eye turns light into vision; all can be adversely affected. Cigarette smoke is very toxic and the delicate internal and external tissues can be harmed. The tissues of the eyes are very active and need the proper nutrients and chemical balance to be active. Harm can result when the toxins change the balance of nutrients resulting in the inability of the tissues to maintain normal metabolic activity. If the tissues cannot keep up with the process of healthy functions, vision will likely be affected.

The surface structures of the eyes become easily inflamed in the presence of cigarette smoke whether the individual is smoking or is just exposed to it. Smoking is a factor in developing dry eye, even in non-smoking children. Some eye medications do not work as well in curbing inflammation when the individual using them are smokers so the tissues of the eyes can be further damaged by persistent inflammation. Also, people with thyroid-related eye problems can have more complications when they smoke as well.

Multiple studies have found that smoking is a risk factor for developing cataracts. When speaking to our patients, we often remind them about the role that ultraviolet light exposure can play in the development of cataracts but we may not remember to remind them not to smoke.

Perhaps the most concerning risk factor for permanent blindness is the relationship that smoking has to the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Smoking is the most significant, avoidable risk factor for AMD and has been linked in multiple studies to both developing and worsening of the condition. Macular degeneration is the number one cause of visual impairment in older adults in the United States and it is responsible for everything from difficulty in performing daily activities like driving and reading to the possible loss of independence and depression.

We all agree that smoking is a difficult habit to break but it is necessary to your overall and visual health to avoid it at all costs. Speak to your doctor about how you can quit and remember, even if you have smoked for a long time, quitting now will have a positive impact on your health.

Dr. Julia AppelDr. Julia Appel is an associate clinical professor and a member of the University Eye Center’s primary care team.

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