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How Smoking Affects Your Risk of Common Eye Diseases

Posted by: Cape Fear Retina in Blog

Substances in tobacco smoke are a recipe for disaster when it comes to your eyes. Keep reading to learn more about how smoking affects your vision.

If you are a smoker, you are probably well aware that your habit increases your risk of lung disease and heart disease. Did you know that smoking also leaves you increasingly vulnerable to most common eye diseases? 

Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipe tobacco, the nicotine, tar, and other substances in tobacco smoke are a recipe for disaster when it comes to your eyes. Below, you’ll learn how smoking affects your risk of several common eye diseases.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition in which excess sugar in the bloodstream causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina, which is the portion of the eye that detects light. As this damage progresses, patients develop increasingly blurry vision, which sometimes progresses to blindness if left unaddressed. Damage caused by diabetic retinopathy is irreversible.

Diabetics who fail to control their blood sugar closely are at a high risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, and smoking increases that risk even further. Nicotine impairs insulin activity, making it harder for diabetics to regulate their blood sugar levels. It also contributes to elevated blood pressure, another risk factor for diabetic retinopathy. In diabetics who smoke, diabetic retinopathy worsens faster than in non-smokers.


The lens of your eye is a tissue that focuses light on the retina so that you’re able to see a clear image. The lens itself should be clear, but in patients with cataracts, the proteins that form the lens start to deform, giving the lens a cloudy appearance. Patients with cataracts notice their vision growing more and more cloudy over time. You can only treat cataracts with surgery.

Cataracts are a common and complex condition, and there are a number of factors that contribute to one’s risk of developing cataracts. Physical damage to the eye, radiation exposure, poor nutrition, and diabetes are a few of them. Smoking, however, is one of the most worrisome risk factors for cataracts. Those who smoke 20 cigarettes per day double their risk of this ailment.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-Related Macular Degeneration, often known as AMD, is the most common cause of vision loss in elderly Americans. AMD involves damage to a specific part of the retina called the macula. There are two main types of AMD. Wet AMD is associated with the growth of extra blood vessels under the retina, causing fluid to leak and scar the macula. Dry AMD is associated with the growth of protein clumps in the macula.

You cannot control many of the risk factors for AMD. Heredity plays a huge role in determining risk, with Caucasians being most likely to develop AMD. Other risk factors include being female and being of advanced age. Smoking is the most significant modifiable risk factor for AMD. Tobacco smoke causes the blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to the eyes and makes macular tissue more likely to die.


Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions resulting in damage to the optic nerve, which is the nerve that carries visual information to the brain. In its early stages, glaucoma does not always cause symptoms, but as it progresses, it results in patchy vision which worsens over time. Vision lost to glaucoma cannot be recovered.
As with cataracts, there are many risk factors for glaucoma, and it is difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, caused glaucoma in a particular patient. However, many of the risk factors for glaucoma are modifiable, so there is a lot that patients can do to protect themselves.

Smoking cigarettes increase the risk for glaucoma, and it also makes other eye diseases more likely. Patients with other eye diseases, like cataracts and AMD, are more likely also to develop glaucoma. Other glaucoma risk factors include excessive alcohol use, playing high-resistance wind instruments, and a lack of exercise.

The moral of the story here is clear. If you are a smoker, quitting is the best thing you can do for your eye health. You should also schedule a check-up with your eye doctor to make sure you are not developing these or other worrisome eye diseases. Contact Cape Fear Retina if you’re looking for an eye doctor in the Wilmington area.

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