A close-up of a woman's mouth as she blows out the smoke of a cigarette held in her hand.

Smoking has long been demonized for its association with lung disease and cancer, but few people recognize that it is also linked to vision loss. Yes, it’s true: smoking can cause impaired sight and blindness. Although the idea of losing one of the five major senses is unsettling, there are certain measures that can be taken in order to prevent the likelihood of such health problems.

In this article, we’ll discuss the ways that smoking can harm your vision, as well as the steps you can take to reverse the deleterious effects.

How does smoking affect vision?

Individuals who smoke are three to four times more likely to develop eye diseases than their non-smoking counterparts, according to the New York State Department of Health. In addition to increased likelihood of developing cancer and/or lung disease, smokers are significantly more susceptible to the following conditions:

  • Age-related Macular Degeneration
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetic Retinopathy
  • Dry Eye Syndrome
  • Glaucoma

In order to better understand the severity of the negative health effects of smoking, here’s a brief overview of what each of these eye diseases entails:

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) refers to the progressive deterioration of the macula, a small center of clustered cells in the retina of the eye responsible for visual image processing. AMD comes in one of two forms: wet and dry. Wet AMD is characterized by excessive growth of small blood vessels beneath the macula whose fluid then leaks into the retinal structure. Immediate symptoms include blurred central vision, loss of central vision, and peripheral blind spots. Over time, the blood vessels and their leakage produce an abrasive effect on the tissue of the eye, causing scars and scar tissue to form. Ultimately, vision is lost entirely. Dry AMD progresses in a similar way, but initially it is caused by yellow deposits in the retina, not ruptured blood vessels. 

Cataracts are small cloudy blotches that form in the lens of the eye, producing a visual perspective comparable to looking through a fogged-up window. Although this condition can be corrected by surgery, it is usually symptom-free for most of the disease progression, which means a lot of people don’t know they have it until it’s too late and their vision has already been severely compromised. It is important for adults to get regular eye exams to check for signs of cataracts, especially if they smoke, since having that habit triples one’s chances of developing cataracts. 

Diabetic Retinopathy is, as the name suggests, associated with diabetes. In the same way that the macula becomes “wet” in certain kinds of age-related macular degeneration, diabetics often suffer from deterioration or leakage of blood vessels in the retina. Smoking has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, and those who already have diabetes will suffer more from symptoms and comorbidities if they continue to use cigarettes. 

Dry Eye Syndrome is characterized by red and irritated eyes that emerge due to damaged blood vessels. Prior to the damage to the blood vessels, there is usually an associated lack of moisture in the body or optical organs. Given its dehydrating effect, perhaps it’s no surprise that smokers are more than two times as likely to develop this condition than nonsmokers. 

Glaucoma is developed more often by persons who already have cataracts, diabetes, or hypertension (high blood pressure). This condition involves progressive breakdown of the cells comprising the optic nerve, which is the nerve in the brain that facilitates visual processes. Like cataracts, many people aren’t aware they have glaucoma until the disease is already fairly advanced because of its minimally noticeable symptoms. Over time, however, the peripheral (side) vision will disappear, and if left untreated, visual ability will be lost altogether. Since smoking increases the likelihood of developing cataracts, diabetes, and high blood pressure, it makes sense that the habit can also cause glaucoma. 

What can be done to protect your vision?

The good news is, for as many ways are there are to damage one’s eye health, there is an equal — if not greater — number of ways to protect it. Even if you have a history of smoking or are currently trying to quit, it’s never too late to make positive changes that can reverse the harm of the past. 

First and foremost, quit smoking if you are able. Because nicotine is inherently addictive, many habitual smokers find this to be a difficult task. Join a support group if necessary, or ask a trusted friend or family member to hold you accountable. Remember that there was a time in your life when you did not smoke, and you are more than capable of returning to that healthier place.

It’s also important to get enough physical activity. Whether it’s a weightlifting session or a brisk walk around the neighborhood, there’s really no such thing as a bad form of exercise. Not only does the activity support natural processes and healthier aging within the body, but you might find that the feel-good endorphins it produces can actually lessen your craving for cigarettes! In addition to this habit, eat a balanced diet of healthy foods and be sure to get enough vitamins and minerals from a variety of leafy greens and colorful fruits and vegetables. 

If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol or high blood pressure, get these conditions under control. Failure to do so will only increase your risk of developing vision problems, even if you also quit smoking.

Lastly, schedule regular annual exams with your eye care professional. Optometrists and ophthalmologists can detect signs of visual problems well before you may be able to, so it’s vital to see them on a consistent basis in order to monitor trends in your vision.

If you are concerned about how your vision may be affected by smoking, you’re not alone. The eye care professionals at Spectrum Eye Care are here to help you get the treatment and support you need to reclaim a clear outlook on life. Contact us today for more information.