Does Smoking Affect the Eyes? 

Editor: Dr. Russel Lazarus, Published February 17, 2021

The effects of cigarettes and tobacco on health are widely known, but few understand the negative impact they can have on eye health and vision. 

Smoking over a long period of time can have a major effect on your eye health and vision.

Consider these statistics:

  • Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.
  • Smoking accounts for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or about 1 in 5 deaths.
  • Approximately 34.1 million adults (over age 18) in the U.S. currently smoke cigarettes.
  • The good news is, the number of smokers in the U.S. has actually declined from 20.9 percent in 2005, to 14.0 percent in 2019.

Cigarette smoke is made up of toxins that not only damage your health and irritate your eyes, but have been shown to cause cerebral lesions in the area of the brain that processes vision.

Moreover, tobacco addictions have been shown to increase the risk of developing sight-threatening eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

Regular eye examinations are recommended if you smoke or were a smoker in the past. The Find and Eye Doctor directory will allow you find an eye doctor near you that can discuss the effects of smoking on your eyes and show you the best way forward.

Eye conditions associated with smoking

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)

Smoking can increase your risk of developing AMD by up to 4 times.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a condition that severely impairs central vision, making it difficult or impossible to read, drive and recognize faces and colors. If left untreated, AMD can lead to permanent vision loss and blindness.

Smoking causes your retinal blood vessels to constrict, which can increase your blood pressure and your risk of permanent vision loss from both the wet and dry forms of AMD.

Research also suggests that people who smoke have lower levels of the macular pigments lutein and zeaxanthin, which are responsible for protecting the macula from ultra violet (UV) radiation— another risk factor for AMD.

Cataracts

Smoking can double your risk of developing cataracts at an earlier age. 

Cataracts are one of the leading causes of vision loss. Cataracts develop when the eye’s naturally transparent lens becomes cloudy, causing blurred vision, light sensitivity and difficulty driving at night.

Smoking increases the amount of free radicals in your eyes. Free radicals are responsible for damaging the lipids and proteins in the eyes and causing deposits to form on the surface of the eye’s lens— leading to cataract development.

While the antioxidants you consume in your diet may help to fight the free radicals, smoking can actually kill off the antioxidants and produce toxins that lead to cataracts.

Uveitis

Smoking more than doubles your risk of developing uveitis.

Uveitis occurs when the eye’s uvea, or central layer, becomes inflamed. The harmful chemicals found in cigarettes can cause uveitis. This condition causes damage to the retina and iris (the colored part of your eye) and can lead to cataracts, glaucoma and retinal detachment— and permanent vision loss, if left untreated.

Retinal detachment

Smoking more than doubles your risk of retinal detachment. 

Smoking increases inflammation in the body and the eyes. When blood vessels in the eyes become swollen, they become more fragile and more prone to breaking and leaking fluid. When the fluid leaks into the retina, retinal detachment can occur.

Diabetic retinopathy

Smoking increases your risk of diabetes by up to 40 percent— increasing your risk of diabetic retinopathy as well. 

Diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels in the retina, causing them to leak blood and fluid into the eye— leading to partial or total vision loss.

Dry eye syndrome

Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke doubles your risk of developing dry eye syndrome.

Dry eye syndrome is a common eye condition caused by insufficient lubrication of the eye’s surface. Smoke contains toxins that irritate the eyes which can cause and even exacerbate dry eyes— especially if you wear contact lenses.

Is secondhand smoke harmful to your eyes?

Yes, secondhand smoke has been shown to be just as harmful as actually smoking when it comes to your eye health and vision.

Studies show that women who smoke during pregnancy increase their risk of having a baby with eye disease or vision impairments.

Quit smoking to protect your eyesight

If you smoke, it is highly recommended to seek professional advice on how to quit smoking.

There are many different treatment programs that can provide you with the support you need to help you quit smoking.

It’s never too late to quit smoking. 

Once you kick the habit, your body will begin to heal itself and you will feel a whole lot better just knowing that you are doing the best you can to keep your body in optimal health.

Overcoming any type addiction can be extremely difficult, but your eyes and vision will thank you for a lifetime.