Most people—even smokers themselves—understand that cigarette smoking puts them at greater risk for cancer, heart disease and life-threatening respiratory problems. But they may not realize the extensive medical research that shows smoking can also be a factor in causing a number of serious eye diseases.
Lighting up can put your vision at risk
Even if a smoker eats a diet full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, he or she may have a lower blood concentration of these important nutrients than nonsmokers. That means smoking may reduce eye health antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E as well as zinc, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin (which help maintain sharp, central vision and protect the eye from free radicals).
In addition to a loss of eye health nutrients, people who smoke are at risk for several eye health conditions, including:
Cataracts — Cigarette smokers are at increased risk for developing cataracts, a clouding of the naturally clear lens of the eye. Cataracts cause a variety of vision problems, including blurry distance vision, sensitivity to glare, loss of contrast and difficulty seeing colors.
Diabetic retinopathy — In people with high blood sugar levels, some studies suggest that smoking may be linked to diabetic retinopathy, which includes damage to the blood vessels in the retina,
2as well as other complications.
Optic nerve problems — The optic nerve is also susceptible to damage from smoking. Optic nerve problems such as Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (worsening of retinal ganglion cells, which may lead to central loss of vision) and glaucoma (group of eye diseases that develop when increased fluid pressure damages nerve fibers in the optic nerve and retina) may be genetic, but people with this condition who smoke have increased risk of vision loss.
Vision loss associated with Graves’ disease — In some patients with a thyroid problem called Graves’ disease, smoking can cause the eyes to become worse with possible vision loss.
Dry eye — People who don’t produce enough tears to keep their eyes comfortably lubricated have a condition called dry eye, which includes symptoms such as scratchiness, stinging, intermittent blurring or burning of the eyes. For these people, smoking can make symptoms worse.
Smoking and vision as we age
Researchers have discovered a link between the number of years a person smokes and the number of cigarettes smoked each day with the likelihood of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD occurs when the central retina is damaged and may cause severe vision loss.
Studies have shown that both smokers and ex-smokers are more likely to develop AMD than people who have never used cigarettes, and it’s the leading cause of severe vision loss in those over 50.
2 In one recent study, elderly women who smoked were five and a half times more likely to develop AMD than non-smoking women of the same age.
Quitting: the start to better health
To prevent serious health and eye health risks, experts advise against smoking and recommend eating leafy greens. In addition, it’s also important to control blood pressure, stay active and schedule annual visits with your eye doctor.
The health benefits of quitting smoking are both short term and long term. After quitting, a person can have an improved heart rate and lung function and lower blood pressure. In the long term, a person who quits smoking is less likely to have certain cancers and coronary heart disease and to have a reduced risk of various eye diseases and vision loss.
When you quit smoking, you’ll see it’s the start of many good things for your health.