Can Smoking Affect Your Eyes?

There is a reason smoking can cause so many health problems, ranging from lung and heart disease to cancer. Cigarettes, the most common form of smoking in the United States, contain a laundry list of toxins and chemicals that are harmful to the human body.

The negative effects of smoking can also reach your eyes, and it is important to remember the damaging impact it can have on your vision. This blog will help explain the link between smoking and your eyes and why dry eye syndrome, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy are more prevalent in smokers.

Smoking and Eyesight Problems

According to the American Cancer Society, here are some common chemicals that enter your body and lungs with each breath of inhaled smoke – nicotine, formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and radioactive elements. This is just a brief snapshot, as cigarettes contain more than 7,000 chemicals.

These toxins and chemicals do not stop at the lungs. They travel to other parts of the body, including your eyes, and cause damage.

Here are some common eye-related problems associated with smoking.

Dry Eye

Any type of smoke is considered an irritant that decreases the moisture and lubrication in your eyes. Smokers are constantly exposed to smoke each time they exhale, which can lead to dry eye syndrome. The toxins in smoke can also cause eye irritation, which can make dry eye symptoms even worse, especially for those who wear contact lenses.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, which places a person at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. With this eye disease, tiny blood vessels in your retina (the thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye) become damaged and leak blood and fluid into the eye, which can cause a number of vision-threatening issues.


Smoking has been shown to be a risk factor for developing uveitis, which is inflammation inside the eye. Uveitis can lead to eye redness, pain, and vision loss.


It is believed that free radicals in tobacco smoke alter the cells in the lens of the eye. Smoking may also lead to the accumulation of heavy metals in the lens. Such damage means smokers are two to three times more likely to develop cataracts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

The macula (the central part of the retina that helps you see clearly) can deteriorate for many reasons, including from smoking. There are two types of AMD: dry AMD and wet AMD. All forms of AMD begin with the dry AMD in which the development of a fatty protein called drusen leads to thinning and loss of nerve cells in the macula. AMD is the leading cause of legal blindness in older adults (65 and older). Smokers are two times more at risk to develop AMD, according to the CDC.

Toxic Optic Neuropathy

Smoking and alcohol use can also be toxic to the optic nerves by inhibiting an important part of metabolism. The optic nerves carry visual information from the eyes to the brain, and toxic optic neuropathy due to smoking can cause blurry vision and black spots in your visual field.

Why Do Your Eyes Turn Red When You Smoke?

Some smokers notice their eyes can become red when they smoke. This occurs for two reasons: smoke and the chemicals found in cigarettes.

The presence of smoke alone is an eye irritant, and it can lead to a breakdown in tear film. Your eye has three tear layers: an outer oily layer, a middle watery layer, and an inner mucus layer. Smoke affects the outer layer, which causes the inner watery tear layer to dry out. Symptoms of dry eye syndrome include irritated, gritty, or burning eyes.

Nicotine found in cigarettes acts as a stimulant to your central nervous system. As a result, your heart rate increases and your blood vessels narrow which restricts blood flow. To overcompensate, the body pumps more blood, which can lead to dilated, red eyes.

Smoking During Pregnancy

You should avoid smoking during pregnancy as it can cause a myriad of health issues for your child. Smoking during pregnancy increases your risk of miscarriage and can cause tissue damage in the lungs and brain. Additionally, the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) increases by three times in mothers who smoke, and 20% of babies born to mothers who smoke will have low birth weight, according to the CDC.

Aside from these general health complications, smoking during pregnancy can also cause specific issues to your child’s eye health. For instance, mothers who smoke have a higher chance of preterm delivery. Prematurity can lead to a complication called retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow in the retina. This disease can eventually lead to vision loss or blindness.

Treating Styes at Dean McGee Eye Institute
Between natural healing time and at-home treatments, a stye that develops on your eyelid should go away on its own – as long as you keep the area clean and use warm compresses.
Request an evaluation with one of the oculoplastic surgeons at DMEI today or contact us for more information.

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