Smoking Harms the Eyes Too

Eye Health

By Dr S.S. Gill

Ipoh Echo’s EYE HEALTH series continues with Consultant Eye Surgeon Dr S.S. GILL talking to us about how the effects of smoking on the eyes.

Most people tend to think that smoking only causes harm to the lungs only. Well, this is a myth because smoking harms nearly every organ in the body including the eyes. It is my opinion that the effects of smoking have not been publicised enough in Malaysia. There is mounting evidence showing eye disorders that are linked to smoking.

There are two types of smoke generated from tobacco. Firstly, there is the more dangerous side-stream smoke, meaning to say that it is more toxic than the smoke inhaled by the smoker. This is the smoke that is inhaled by the people who sit around a smoker and they are commonly referred to as passive smokers. Then there is the mainstream smoke that is inhaled and exhaled by the smoker. Cigarette smoke contains thousands of ingredients including cancer causing substances (carcinogens) and agents that cause inflammation. Here is a brief review of the effects smoking has on our eyes.


Children who are exposed to the smoke from their cigarette-smoking parents (passive smokers) are more prone to eye allergies. The conjunctiva of the eyes become inflamed (swollen) due to the exposure to cigarette smoke which is an irritant. Many parents who smoke do not realise these effects and may not take this seriously.


Smoking increases the risk of cataract formation. A cataract is a condition whereby the crystalline lens in the eye becomes cloudy and causes poor vision. The risk of cataract formation is 3-4 times more in an individual who is a smoker. Smokers generally develop cataracts earlier than non-smokers because smoking reduces antioxidant supply to the eyes. Smoking releases a substance known as free radicals. These free radicals cause damage to the cells of the body including the eyes and lens, hence the cataract formation.


The macula of the eye is the most sensitive part of the back of the eye (nerve). The macula is responsible for the fine vision required for the many daily activities of the day. When the macula gets affected by this condition called as Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), it can result in serious loss of central vision. This condition which was more common among Caucasians in the past is slowly becoming more prevalent among Asians too.


The effects of smoking including that of mothers exposed to passive smoke or side-stream smoke is serious. There is increasing evidence from research that shows harmful effects to the eyes of an unborn child. The immediate risk would be of course a premature delivery. An infant born premature runs a risk of a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). The vessels in the eyes of a premature infant are abnormal and friable leading to retinal detachment and even blindness. UVEITIS Smoking is known to cause inflammation to occur in the pigmented part of the eye called uvea (uveitis). The risk of such inflammation is approximately two times more with its problematic symptoms of glare, photophobia, eye redness, tearing and blurring vision. Uveitis is also difficult to treat and may become chronic.

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