Smoking and Eye Health: The Crystal-Clear Benefits of Quitting

Smoking harms every part of your body, and your eyes are no exception. Smoking is known to increase the risks of age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and many other eye-related conditions. Quitting smoking is the only way to reduce your risks.

Smoking has so many negative effects on your health that people rarely know the full extent of the damage it can do. Everybody knows smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease, but fewer people – whether smokers or non-smokers – are aware of the other consequences of smoking, including the relationship between smoking and eye health. However, the risks to your eyes from smoking are significant, and kicking your smoking habit is the only way to reduce the risks and protect your vision into your old age.

Smoking and Age-Related Macular Degeneration

One of the most well-known risks for smoking and eye health is age-related macular degeneration. The macula is the central part of the retina, which is responsible for the quality of your vision in the middle of your field of view. This is the part of your vision that allows you to do things like read, watch television, drive and much more. When this part of your eye is affected, your vision becomes dark and blurry in the center, and this is more likely as you get older.

There are two types of macular degeneration, called “wet” and “dry.” The dry form is the most common, and involves fatty deposits forming underneath under the macula, which leads to a slowly-progressing decline in vision quality. The wet form is less common, but involves the blood vessels in the macula breaking open or leaking, and this causes a much quicker decline in vision.

Smoking is known to increase your risk of both the wet and dry forms of age-related macular degeneration, leading to a doubling or a tripling of your risk. It also leads to earlier development of the condition in comparison to non-smokers. The risk also increases the more you smoke, so heavier smokers are at more risk than lighter smokers.

Smoking and Cataracts

The next big link between smoking and eye health relates to the risk of developing cataracts. Cataracts are common in older people, and involve the lens of the eye becoming clouded, which blurs the vision and in extreme cases can lead to loss of vision.

Smoking increases your risk of a specific type of cataract, called nuclear cataracts. These are the most common types of cataracts, and are called “nuclear” because they involve the central portion of the lens. This again affects the central part of your vision, and can affect your ability to focus. Pack-a-day smokers (of 20 cigarettes per day) increases your risk of these cataracts by two times, and again this risk increases with the amount you smoke.

This risk might not seem too big, but since about 50 percent of Americans get cataracts by age 80, increasing your risk of this even slightly can have a dramatic effect.

Smoking and Diabetic Retinopathy

As the name suggests, diabetic retinopathy is a condition which affects people who suffer from diabetes. The high sugar levels in the blood damages the blood vessels that lead to the retina, and this causes either leaking from the blood vessels or scarring, and both of these affects the transfer of images from the retina to the brain. In extreme cases, the result of this process is complete blindness.

Smoking increases the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy by two to three times, and it can also make it worse because smoking also damages the blood vessels. On top of all this, smoking can actually cause type 2 diabetes as well, so it can both cause the original condition and increase the risk of one of the complications.

Smoking and Eye Health: Other Conditions

Although we’ve explored many of the reasons smoking and eye health are linked, there are more eye-related conditions than this affected by smoking. Other conditions made worse by smoking include thyroid eye disease and optic neuropathy.

Protecting Your Eye Health by Quitting Smoking

Stopping smoking is the only way to halt or even reverse these risks to your eyes. For example, one study showed that elderly ex-smoker who’d quit more than 20 years previously had the same risk of developing age-related macular degeneration as never-smokers. In addition, most of these conditions have a dose-response relationship, so the more you smoke, the higher your risks. The counterpart to this is that the less you smoke, the lower your risks, so stopping smoking as soon as possible is the best way to protect your eyes.

If you’re worried about the link between smoking and eye health, there are many approaches you can use to help you quit smoking. These include medicines, nicotine replacement therapy products and alternative nicotine products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. Quitting nicotine use entirely is the best thing for your health, but if you can’t completely quit or don’t want to, switching to a reduced-harm nicotine product will reduce most of the risk to your eye health.