While the smoking rate has declined in the United States, the Centers of Disease Control estimates that nearly 38 million adults — 15.5 percent of the population – continue to smoke. At the same time, the number of people, especially young people, who use e-cigarettes is on the rise. As usage continues, both of these groups are likely to be impacted by the health hazards associated with smoking and vaping — hazards that range from long-term lung illnesses to sight-stealing eye diseases.
“Damage that occurs to the eye from smoking or vaping is most likely irreversible,” explains Dr. Vivienne Velasco of iFocus Vision Center in Las Vegas. “If someone develops macular degeneration or a retinal vein occlusion, a stroke in the eye, the vision loss that occurs is typically permanent.”
Smoking and Eye Disease
As if the threat of lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke weren’t enough of a deterrent, Dr. Velasco says the threat of losing your vision because of cigarettes should prompt any smoker to quit immediately.
“Smoking is not only unhealthy for the body but also the eyes,” Dr. Velasco says. “Smoking decreases the circulation in the blood vessels in the eye and can put a patient at a higher risk of developing macular degeneration, cataracts, and even a stroke — all of which can lead to blindness.”
Chemicals contained in cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke include Benzene, Formaldehyde, the toxic metal Cadmium, and the carcinogen Acetaldehyde. When these chemicals come into contact with your eyes, they can be much more than an irritant.
Here is a closer look at how smoking leads to sight-threatening conditions.
Age Related Macular Degeneration
Though Age Related Macular Degeneration (ARMD) is a disease that commonly strikes those over the age of 65, continued use of cigarettes can speed up its progression. In other words, smoking can age your eyes in a hurry and put you at risk of a sight-robbing illness long before you the average ARMD patient. Researchers estimate that smokers are three to four times more likely to develop ARMD, and there is no cure for the disease, which can lead to mild vision loss or central blindness.
A cataract is a cloudy, milky spot that forms on the lens of your eye. As a cataract forms, you may experience – among other symptoms — blurring or hazy vision, a gradual loss in color vision, and an uncomfortable feeling that there is a film covering your eye. Smoking is a leading cause of cataracts, which can require surgery to repair.
As smoking has been linked to diabetes, smokers should be highly concerned about Diabetic Retinopathy, a weakening or swelling of the blood vessels in your retina, which can result in blood leakage and the abnormal growth of new blood vessels. Diabetes is also linked to other vision problems, including double vision and loss of peripheral vision.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is a lovely song by The Platters. But the real thing is not only incredibly irritating, it’s potentially hazardous to your vision. Dry Eye is a condition in which your eyes do not produce enough tears, leading to a stinging, itching, or burning sensation in your eyes. While this can occur naturally as you get older, smoking and cigarette smoke greatly increases the likelihood you will experience Dry Eye. It’s a condition that can’t be cured, only controlled using artificial tears.
Smoking greatly increases your risk of developing Glaucoma, a devastating eye disease that slowly steals your vision. Glaucoma is a breakdown of the optic nerve, which carries visual information to your brain. As the fibers within your optic nerve are destroyed, the brain receives less and less information, reducing your vision dramatically. Any vision loss as a result of Glaucoma is permanent and cannot be restored. That’s why Dr. Velasco advises all patients – smokers and non-smokers – to be tested for Glaucoma symptoms every two years.
In addition to these conditions, Dr. Velasco says contact lens patients who smoke must take extra precautions when inserting and removing their lenses. That’s because cigarette use can leave tiny traces of tar and nicotine on your fingers, and those chemicals should never come into contact with your lenses.
What About Vaping?
While the 2019 outbreak in lung diseases linked to vaping put the industry in the global spotlight, the link between vaping and vision loss had been known to researchers and health officials.
“Vaping is just as bad as smoking because you are inhaling chemicals that quite frankly have not been studied long term or is not regulated by the FDA,” says Dr. Velasco.
Like smoking, vaping produces a cloud of chemicals, including nicotine and formaldehyde fumes. Even non-smokers are at risk when these chemicals come into contact with the eyes.
The best advice: Quit, immediately.
Have a question about smoking and vision loss? Schedule an appointment with Dr. Velasco online or call 702-473-5660.