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8 Ways Smoking Damages Your Eyes and Ruins Contact Lenses

woman smoking cigarette

Smoking harms almost every organ in the body. Most of those organs are internal, so you can't see the damage. Out of sight, out of mind! But smoking also damages one of your most precious external organs: your eyes.

We all know smoking can cause cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. Even the package will tell you that. But did you know that smoking increases the risk of developing blinding eye diseases? Here are 8 ways smoking damages your eyes and ruins contact lenses.

1. Smoking Gives You Dry Eyes

If you’re a smoker, you may be familiar with a dry, stinging sensation in your eyes after you’ve had a cigarette. You might be so used to this sensation that you think it’s normal. But it’s not. Dry eye syndrome is a disorder caused by a lack of quality tear film in the eye. In order to stay healthy, it must constantly have a layer of oily liquid.

Usually, the glands in your eyes take care of this. But if the glands produce less moisture, become blocked or can't create oily tears, you may get dry eyes. Your eyes get red and watery. (Strange, but true. Dry eyes can water, alot, without resolving the dryness issue.) In addition, there may be a gritty sensation, as though there’s something stuck in your eye.

People who smoke are twice as likely to experience dry eyes. Even people exposed to secondhand smoke are more prone to this condition, particularly if they wear contact lenses.

2. Smoking Can Cause AMD

woman with poor vision holding glasses pondering contact lenses

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a major cause of permanent vision loss in American seniors. It’s a disease of the macula, which is an area in the middle of the retina. As a result, it affects your central vision. People with AMD see blind spots that make it difficult to identify things straight ahead.

Smoking is a major risk factor for AMD. Studies have shown that smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop it than non-smokers. Also, AMD affects older women disproportionately. Female smokers over 80 are 5.5 times more likely to get AMD than non-smoking women their age.

3. Smoking Can Cause Cataracts

Close-up of young woman’s eye with a cataract

Cigarettes contain all kinds of nasty chemicals. Most people know they contain tar and nicotine. But did you know cigarettes also contain lead, naphthalene and arsenic?

When cigarette smoke hits your eyes, it causes blood vessels to constrict. This limits oxygen transmission that your eyes need. As a result, the cells in your eyes become damaged and can't heal themselves.

This damage can take the form of cataracts, which is the most common cause of vision loss in people over 40. It’s also the leading cause of blindness in the world. You should know that smoking doubles your risk of developing cataracts. And the more you smoke, the more that risk increases.

4. Smoking Is Linked to Diabetic Retinopathy

If AMD and cataracts weren't enough, smoking is also linked to diabetic retinopathy. This disease is the result of damage to the retina’s blood vessels. It’s the most common cause of vision impairment among working-aged adults in the U.S. And it’s on the rise.

A 2002 study suggests that the number of Americans with diabetic retinopathy is set to double over the next thirty years. So we’re well on our way to meeting that expectation at this point.

We can’t draw a clear causal line from smoking to diabetic retinopathy. However, smoking does increase the risk of developing diabetes. And diabetic retinopathy is a complication of this disease.

5. Smoking Can Cause Uveitis

Still, there’s more! Smoking can cause uveitis. This is when the middle layer of the eye, the uvea, has inflammation. This can damage the retina and iris, both of which must be healthy for us to see.

Uveitis is also a contributing factor in eye problems like cataracts, glaucoma and retinal detachment. Also, exposure to cigarette smoke increases the risk of developing uveitis.

6. Smoking Can Affect How You See Color

Color wheel with all different colors

As well as links to eye diseases and disorders, smoking can affect how you see. Visual field defects and color vision disturbances can occur. That means smoking can actually change the way your eyes perceive color. Because smoking reduces blood flow in the retina, it causes irregularities in the tiny retinal blood vessels.

7. Smoking Harms Your Baby’s Eyes

People who smoke while pregnant pass dangerous toxins on to their baby through the placenta. Those toxins increase the chances of health complications, such as fetal and infant eye disorders.

One of the most serious side effects of smoking while pregnant is that your baby’s optic nerve might not develop properly. In fact, the leading cause of blindness in young children is underdeveloped optic nerves.

Smoking while pregnant also increases the chance of premature birth. As a result, this causes a whole host of issues for yourself and your baby. One of which is retinopathy of prematurity, a potentially blinding eye disease.

8. The Effects of Smoking on Contact Lenses

woman with contact lens on finger

It's impossible to keep your eyes adequately moisturized when you have smoke in your eyes. This causes your contacts to become dry and uncomfortable. They’re also contaminated by the chemicals in cigarette smoke. Your natural tears are just not enough to wash away the irritants in the smoke.

In addition, you risk contaminating your contact lenses with the deposits on your fingers. What starts as an unpleasant burning sensation can quickly develop into a corneal ulcer. In the worst cases, the only treatment is a corneal transplant.

Short of quitting smoking, the only real way to minimize the chance of lens contamination is to practice good hygiene. The AOA outlines how to clean and store your contact lenses correctly.

Use Daily Disposable Contacts

The easiest way to improve contact lens hygiene is to make the switch to daily disposable contact lenses. Disposable lenses do not need cleaning since they’re never reused. Because they get buildup, extended wear contacts pose more risk of infection.

The best contact lenses for smokers are disposables with added moisture technology. 1-Day Acuvue Moist contact lenses are 58% water and contain Lacreon technology that locks in moisture.

Proclear 1 Day contacts are also recommended for dry eyes, as they’re 60% water and made from a unique lens material that offers 12 hours of comfort.

Protect Your Eyes

If you’re considering changing your contact lenses, always get an up-to-date contact lens exam from your eye doctor first. Or, to avoid all of the horrible eye problems we’ve discussed, quit smoking! There are endless resources out there to help you, so reach out and go smoke-free today.

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