Wait, smoking is bad for your eyes?

October 11, 2015 - 4 minutes read

News flash: Smoking affects your eyes, and cigarettes are bad for you. Sure, the image below makes the habit look sexy, but truth be told, smoking tobacco causes wrinkles, premature aging, and a long list of diseases. Everybody knows this. Yet most smokers do not know that they are risking severe visual impairment, and even blindness, as a result of their smoking habit.


This woman has more than just wrinkles around her eyes from smoking, she may have visual impairment too.

Smoking affects the eyes at three main levels. On the front of the eye all the heat and pollution around the face tend to irritate delicate cells and cause symptoms of dry eye syndrome. This can be especially problematic in contact lens wearers, who are more vulnerable to eye irritation and dry eye. Moving inward to what is roughly the middle of the eye, cataracts form more rapidly (and earlier) in smokers than in non-smokers. And then finally, and most significantly, smoking for ten years or more is a major risk factor for developing Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Add to this the mounting evidence that smoking is an important risk factor for developing diabetes (the leading cause of blindness in people under age 65) and you have a lot of reasons to quit.

AMD is a degeneration of the layers of the retina that threatens to destroy people’s ability to see what they are looking at. Peripheral vision is typically left intact, but the central vision goes from slightly blurry or distorted at the start and often progresses to severe visual impairment (think blindness). Yes, it’s true that this disease is most common in people over 70 year old, but most people want to be able to see decently well into their 70s and eighties. Would you opt to lose your sight early if you had a choice? If the answer is no, perhaps you should be a non-smoker.

The Surgeon General of the United States has not yet put a warning label on cigarettes that says “Smoking may lead to vision loss or blindness” but we feel that they should. AMD is, after all, the leading cause of blindness in people over age 65. The other two key risk factors for AMD are family history (which of course no one can modify) and lots of sun exposure. Cannon EyeCare at Market Optical is located in the great Pacific NorthWest. While it is not super-sunny here in Seattle, we definitely see locals who end up with sun damage on the their eyes. Sun glasses are not just for looking cool these days, they can also help protect your eyes from UV damage on the same 3 levels of the eye mentioned above, but that is the topic of another blog post.

So it is official: smoking affects your eyes. If you need a good reason to quit smoking cigarettes, I’ve just given you three. If you never smoke again and wear sun glasses when appropriate, you just might save yourself the frustration of going blind later in life as a result of behavioral choices.

Sincerely, Dr. Mark Cannon, optometrist @ Cannon EyeCare (at Market Optical) in Seattle, Washington

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