What Are the Effects of Smoking on the Eyes?

Smoking is the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States. It’s a risk factor for cardiovascular, respiratory diseases, and cancer, but did you know it’s a contributing factor in many common eye diseases? From cataracts and macular degeneration to glaucoma and uveitis, smoking cigarettes can put you at risk for a variety of eye diseases, irritations, and problems.

What happens when you smoke while wearing contact lenses? Certain risks do increase. The nicotine that rests in your fingers can contaminate your lenses which can cause a burning sensation to your eyes. Make sure you wash your hands after smoking when handling your contact lenses.

Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration causes “blind spots” and can severely impair central vision – in fact, it’s the leading cause of permanent vision loss among those 65 and older. While most cases of macular degeneration simply occur with advanced age, those who smoke quadruple their risk of developing the condition later in life. Additionally, smokers have three times the risk of having a more severe form of macular degeneration than their non-smoking peers. Although smoking is the biggest controllable risk factor associated with macular degeneration, quitting at any age can significantly reduce your risk of developing the condition.

Thyroid Eye Disease

Studies show that there is strong evidence for a correlation between thyroid eye disease and how much an individual smokes. Unfortunately, even second-hand exposure can increase the risk of Graves’ disease, the most common form of hyperthyroidism. Graves’ disease causes the soft tissues around the eyes to swell and become inflamed – in some cases, the eyes can even bulge or protrude from their sockets. If you’ve been diagnosed with thyroid disease, your physician will most likely encourage you to stop smoking immediately. If you’re a smoker and concerned about Graves’ disease, talk to your primary care physician during your next visit.


Characterized by an inflammation of the middle section of the eye, Uveitis harms the vital structures of the eye, including the iris and retina. If left untreated, Uveitis can lead to complications like cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal detachment. Although studies haven’t been conducted in humans, lab studies using rats have determined that a chemical found in tobacco smoke can induce an inflammatory response and acute uveitis; therefore, it’s highly plausible that smoking cigarettes and/or being exposed to cigarette smoke can increase a person’s risk for Uveitis.


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Dry Eyes

Much like alcohol affects the eyes, smoking cigarettes can cause chronic redness and irritation of your eyes. Tobacco smoke, even passive smoke inhaled by children, can alter the tear film of the eyes. If this film is altered enough, it can exacerbate dry eye syndrome, increase the severity of allergies, and can lead to permanent eye conditions. Additionally, those who wear contact lenses are nearly twice as likely to have dry eyes if they smoke or are exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke.

Exposure to smoke, along with the presence of contacts often leads to dry eyes. Source: Clevelandclinic.org

Preventing vision loss

To take care of our eyes, it’s important that you adopt a healthy lifestyle. When you decide to quit smoking, have your eyes examined by your eye care professional. 

Regular exercise, blood pressure control, and a nutritious diet are also effective ways to reduce the risk of eye disease and vision loss.

Ready to Quit Smoking?

It’s never too late to quit smoking and enjoy the health benefits of a smoke-free lifestyle. Even if you’ve been smoking your entire life, kicking the habit can still prove to be beneficial as quitting smoking at any age can reduce your risk of developing many sight-threatening conditions, including macular degeneration. For more information about quitting, visit your doctor – he or she can recommend methods for getting started on your journey towards a smoke-free life.

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