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Smoking tobacco doesn’t only put a person’s lung and heart health in jeopardy. Cigarette smoke contains as many as 4,000 harmful active compounds, including tar, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals that pose a risk to eye health, too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking directly impacts eye health by increasing a person’s risk for cataracts, which causes clouding of the eye’s lens and makes it hard to see clearly. In fact, smoking 15 or more cigarettes a day is associated with up to three times greater risk of cataracts than not smoking at all.
The free radicals in tobacco smoke assault the eye by damaging lens proteins and the fiber cell membrane in the lens. Researchers have found that smoking also lowers your body’s levels of antioxidants and certain enzymes which may help remove the damaged proteins from the lens.
Exposure to tobacco smoke also increases the risk of macular degeneration, a disease that typically results in blindness as it damages the retina, the part of the eye needed for central vision. Studies have shown that smokers are three to four times more likely to develop macular degeneration than nonsmokers.
Second-hand smoke is just as unhealthy for the eyes. Studies also show nonsmokers living with smokers almost double their risk of developing macular degeneration.
The CDC says smoking also indirectly affects eye health because it is a known cause of diabetes, which can damage blood vessels in the eye and lead to decreased vision.
The Mayo Clinic says smoking may also cause or worsen dry eyes, which can leave eyes feeling scratchy or burning. Smokers experience dry eyes more than two times as often as nonsmokers, according to a University of Wisconsin study.
But the news isn’t all bad.
You can lower your risk of these and other eye health issues by kicking your tobacco habit. Quitting smoking and avoiding second- and third-hand smoke can help keep your eyes healthy and protect your vision, as the risk for these diseases drops to nearly the same level as nonsmokers after quitting.
Additionally, eating leafy green vegetables, fruits, and foods high in vitamins C and E have been shown to promote eye health.