It’s no secret that a healthy lifestyle – like eating nutritious food, getting enough rest, and drinking enough water – is good for the entire body, including the eyes. It’s also no secret that smoking has numerous health risks, and is not part of a healthy lifestyle. So it makes sense that smoking, and being exposed to secondhand smoke, is also unhealthy for the eyes and can have negative effects on vision. Let’s look into how secondhand smoke affects vision.
Smoking tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, and pipes) is a well known risk factor for heart disease, cancer, and many other serious and potentially fatal health problems. It is also known to harm eyes.
Some commonly known eye problems that are worsened by smoking are:
- Dry Eye Syndrome: Exposure to the smoke created by tobacco products is irritating to the eyes, increasing feelings of dryness, scratchiness, stinging, burning, and eye redness. If you think you may have dry eye syndrome, try this fast quiz at the button below.
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): AMD is a disease that occurs when the macula, an essential part of the layer at the back of the interior of the eye (retina), is damaged. AMD causes loss of central vision and prevents those with this disease from focusing on fine details. However, peripheral (side) vision remains normal. Sometimes it is possible to halt the progression of AMD with medications or surgery, but it is important to note that there is no cure. Studies have shown that smokers and ex-smokers are more likely to get AMD than those who have always been smoke-free.
- Cataracts: Smoking increases the risk of developing cataracts. A cataract, otherwise known as dysfunctional lens syndrome (DLS) stage three, is a sight-diminishing condition caused by the clouding of the eye’s natural lens. Cataracts cause vision to be blurry and colors to look dull. People with cataracts often begin to notice a faded or yellowing appearance to the world around them. Cataracts must be removed with cataract surgery, and a new, technologically advanced lens can be used to replace the cloudy natural lens.
- Graves’ Disease: Graves’ disease is a condition affecting the body’s thyroid gland. One common symptom of Graves’ disease is bulging of the eyes. If a person with Graves’ disease smokes, they risk the worsening of this eye condition. Advanced Graves’ disease with significant eye-bulging can cause vision impairment or loss.
- Optic Nerve Issues: Smoking is a known risk factor for optic nerve problems. The optic nerve is an important part of the visual system, which connects the eye to the brain, allowing you to see and interpret what is around you. Damage to the optic nerve can lead to vision loss, including blindness. Smoking is a significant risk factor for glaucoma, which is a disease that affects the optic nerve.
- Uveitis: The uvea is the middle layer of the eye wall. When this middle layer becomes red and swollen, it is said to be inflamed. This inflammation of the uvea is known as uveitis. Smoking can cause uveitis, and this disease causes pain, red eyes, and vision problems.
Secondhand Smoke Can Be Especially Damaging to Children’s Eyes
Secondhand smoke exposure is a risk for children’s eye health even before they are born. If a pregnant woman smokes, her baby is five times more likely to experience bacterial meningitis as a child. Meningitis leads to swelling of the tissues around the brain, and has been known to cause eye infections and vision problems. Smoking is also a risk factor for premature birth – a condition that is a risk factor for retinopathy of prematurity. A baby with retinopathy of prematurity may experience permanent vision loss or blindness.
Recent studies have shown that children as young as 6 who were regularly exposed to secondhand smoke already had signs of eye damage, including a thinning of the dense network of blood vessels at the back of the eye known as the choroid. Thinning of the choroid is a troubling risk factor for future development of vision-threatening conditions, like AMD. These vision risks for kids increased the more smoke they were exposed to.
Protect Eyes From Secondhand Smoke
The good news is that smoking rates have declined in the United States over the years, though it is still a significant health risk. In 2018, a survey showed that up to one-fourth of the U.S. population had been exposed to secondhand smoking and that about 28 percent of kids between the ages of 3 and 11 were exposed to smoke. That’s a troubling statistic, given that smoking and smoke exposure are linked to weakened vision and other health conditions.
The first and most obvious steps: If you are currently smoking, try to stop, and try to limit exposure to secondhand smoke. If you are a smoker working to quit, be sure to never smoke in your home or vehicle in order to reduce the smoke exposure for others. The American Cancer Society has many helpful resources to aid people who are trying to stop tobacco use and lead a smoke-free lifestyle.
Be sure to stay up to date with regular eye exams to track your eye health and ensure early detection of any vision-affecting conditions. We wish you all the best in your pursuit of a healthy and active lifestyle. Here’s to healthy eyes!
Lance Kugler, MD, is a specialist in LASIK and vision correction surgery and CEO of Kugler Vision. A proud Omaha native, he is passionate about improving lives through clear vision. Dr. Kugler serves on several national boards, and his practice is recognized internationally as a center of excellence. Dr. Kugler is one of the original founders of the Refractive Surgery Alliance, an international organization comprised of over 350 of the world’s leading vision correction surgeons; he also served as its first president. In 2019, Dr. Kugler was selected as a TEDx speaker, and delivered a talk in Omaha about the worldwide epidemic of nearsightedness and refractive solutions. Dr. Kugler is an Associate Professor of Refractive Surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Truhlsen Eye Institute, has been published in many medical journals, and participates in numerous clinical studies to advance the field of vision correction surgery. Dr. Kugler and his wife are proud parents to five active kids. When he has a spare moment, he enjoys skiing, tennis, travel, and fine coffee.