Save Your Vision Month: How Cigarettes Lead to Poor Eye Health

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By Dr. Shannon Franklin

March is "Save Your Vision" Month.

You already know that smoking is harmful to your lungs and heart, as well as every other major organ in your body, but did you know that it also hurts your eyes?

Smoking significantly increases the risk of developing macular degeneration, an eye disease that is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans age 60 and older. In fact, smokers are four times as likely to develop macular degeneration than non-smokers. This degenerative disease gradually destroys your central vision and causes “blind spots” so that you can no longer see clearly to read, drive, or even recognize faces.

Smoking also increases the risk of developing cataracts. A cataract occurs when the otherwise crystal-clear lens of the eye becomes cloudy. This condition prevents light from being properly focused, leading to blurred, discolored, or fuzzy vision. Studies have found that nearly 20 percent of all cataracts—a condition that accounts for nearly half of the world’s blind population—are due to smoking, and that percentage increases the more you smoke.

If you have diabetes, smoking can aggravate your symptoms and possibly lead to diabetic retinopathy, which is damage to the retina—the part of the eye that captures images.

Other eye conditions that can result from smoking include optic nerve damage, poor night vision, dry eyes, and allergic conjunctivitis. Secondhand smoke also increases all of these conditions. And pregnant women who smoke put their unborn baby’s vision at risk—premature babies can develop retinopathy of prematurity, which could potentially cause blindness in premature babies.

Luckily, giving up smoking will help you lessen any risks to your eyes and the rest of your health. Some studies have shown that you can help improve your ocular health by eating fish or eating foods high in omega-3s—including fish like salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel, as well as ground flax seeds and chia seeds.

Cigarette packs have warnings printed on the side that warn of the risk of heart disease, cancer, and emphysema. Unfortunately, there are no warnings about cigarettes’ damaging effects on vision.