Do your eyes feel stinging, irritated or gritty when you smoke or spend time around smokers?
In the world, 1.3 billion people consume tobacco every day. While no one can deny the harms of smoking when it comes to the lungs or heart, its consequences on the eyes are less well known. And yet studies show that smokers are more likely to develop certain eye diseases. Your eyes also suffer from smoking and smokers are twice as likely to have dry eyes as people who do not smoke.
Why does tobacco irritate and dry out the eyes?
Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals and drying products. Dry eye is probably the most common eye condition in smokers because the components of cigarette smoke are particularly irritating and drying to the eyes.
Each time you blink your eyes, your eyelids cover your eyes with a protective layer of tears, known as the lipid layer. However, the chemicals in smoke can cause this layer to break down and change the composition of your tears. In fact, smoke is a drying agent that promotes tear evaporation, meaning your eyes suffer irritation, discomfort and other symptoms of dry eye.
What’s more, passive smoking—simply being next to someone who is smoking—can also trigger symptoms of dry eye. Some people are particularly sensitive to irritants such as cigarette smoke, and their symptoms may appear very quickly. These people may also develop eye disorders, such as conjunctivitis, the risk of which increases by 20% if you grow up in a smoky environment.
Tobacco smoke doesn’t just sting your eyes… it damages them too.
What other eye diseases are associated with smoking?
Tobacco causes oxidative stress, a physiological phenomenon often caused by free radicals that attack cells and accelerate their ageing.
The chemicals in tobacco smoke enter the eyes through the blood vessels. These substances hinder the blood supply to the eyes, reducing the number of antioxidants. In the longer term, this increases the risk of other eye diseases.
- Uveitis: smokers are twice as likely to develop this inflammation of the uveal tract. It damages the structures of the eye and can lead to cataract formation, glaucoma, retinal detachment or even loss of vision.
- Retinopathy: in diabetics, smoking can increase the risk of retinopathy. This condition occurs when the tiny blood vessels in the retina of the eye become weak or swollen, which leads to leakage of blood and the formation of new blood vessels, among other effects. The person’s vision becomes blurred and marred by dark spots. If left untreated, this condition can even lead to blindness. In addition to smoking, there are other significant risk factors, including high blood pressure and alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
- AMD (age-related macular degeneration): this disease affects the small area of the retina responsible for central vision. The latter becomes blurred, while peripheral vision remains intact. AMD is most often related to ageing. Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop it because tobacco destroys the microvessels of the retina and decreases the level of antioxidants, which usually protect this part of the eye.
- Cataract: cataracts are characterised by partial or total opacification of the lens and involve a gradual loss of vision. Smokers are twice as likely to develop cataracts as non-smokers. Cataracts are also related to ageing, genetics, injury and disease. However, other risk factors may result in cataract formation, such as excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays from sunlight and frequent use of certain medications.
- Childhood eye diseases: pregnant women who smoke transmit dangerous toxins to the placenta, which can lead to premature birth and higher rates of strabismus (crossed eyes), refractive errors, and retinal and optic nerve problems in infants.
What steps can I take to prevent these risks?
These are our top tips:
- Quitting smoking is one of the best steps you can take to protect your vision
- It is best not to smoke in front of children, both for their health and to set them a good example
- Avoid smoking at home
- Stay away from people who smoke
- If you find yourself in an enclosed space where people are smoking, keep your visit short. If you can, meet outside rather than inside
- If you know you are going to be around smoke, you can pre-treat your eyes with drops or gels for dry eye. Try to put these in before coming into contact with smoke. They will cover your eyes to protect them and prevent symptoms
Professional support can help you quit smoking and ensure you find the best method for you.
You will find more advice in our news item on “dry eye and preventive actions”
IF YOU ARE SUFFERING DUE TO DRY EYE, PLEASE SEE AN OPHTHALMOLOGIST.