Lung cancer is the risk we most commonly associate with a smoking habit, followed by oral health problems, but it doesn’t stop with the parts of the body the smoke comes in contact with. As eye doctors, we want to focus on how smoking harms the eyes, which it does in a number of ways.
Numerous studies show that smoking significantly increases the risk of developing eye conditions from those as simple as dry eye to ones as serious as cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and diabetic retinopathy.
The risk of developing cataracts doubles with a smoking habit. Cataracts are the world’s leading cause of blindness. Symptoms of cataracts include light sensitivity, faded colors, blurred or double vision, and poor night vision. The good news is that cataract surgery is both common and safe, which means vision loss due to cataracts isn’t necessarily permanent.
As is probably obvious due to its name, diabetic retinopathy is closely associated with diabetes, and smoking increases the likelihood of developing diabetes by as much as 40%. As a result, smoking also makes complications of diabetes more likely, including retinopathy. This is a sight-threatening condition that involves weakened blood vessels in the back of the eye, which can leak blotches into the field of vision and starve the retina of oxygen.
The part of the retina responsible for our sharpest, most detailed vision is called the macula. Age-related macular degeneration is a condition where the macula deteriorates over time, causing irreversible blindness. Smokers are three times more likely to develop AMD than nonsmokers are, and they’re also more likely to develop it years earlier than they would have otherwise.
The worst harms from smoking are experienced by the smokers themselves, but some of them come from secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke in nonsmokers. In children, it can lead to ear infections, asthma attacks, bronchitis, pneumonia, and even an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
It might be true that vaping is safer than traditional cigarettes, but it’s still a long way from safe. Many of the chemicals in e-cigarette liquid have specifically been linked with increased risks of the sight-threatening conditions described above. Basically, there is no safe way to consume tobacco.
With all that we’ve discussed, it shouldn’t be too surprising that smoking is the most preventable cause of vision loss. We can’t stop ourselves from aging, but we can avoid smoking. Even for lifelong heavy smokers, quitting will still reduce the risk of eye disease. If you or someone you love needs resources to help quit smoking, we’re happy to provide suggestions.