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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Cigarette Smoking and Cataract Risks

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Cigarette Smoking and Cataract Risks

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As if there weren't already enough well-documented reasons to quit smoking, you can add another to the pile: a report from Physicians Health Study indicates that cigarette smoking is a definite contributing factor in the development of cataracts.

Many factors contribute to a person's likelihood of developing cataracts—the clouding of the eye's lenses that can significantly impair vision and lead to blindness—during their lifetime, including gender, eye color, genetic history, excessive exposure to sunlight, eye injury, diabetes, obesity, steroid use, and especially aging. However, while aging is the primary risk factor in developing cataracts, maintaining a smoking habit is one of the most easily eliminated cataract risk factors.

Studies show that cigarettes contribute to the formation of cataracts in two ways. First, free radicals present in tobacco smoke assault the eye directly, potentially damaging lens proteins and the fiber cell membrane in the lens. Second, smoking reduces the body's levels of antioxidants and certain enzymes which may help remove damaged protein from the lens. Over time, this twin-pronged attack can double or even triple a pack-a-day puffer's risk of developing cataracts versus a non-smoker from a similar background.

However, it's difficult to say whether this additional factor will convince anyone to quit, considering that smoking has been linked to an elevated risk of heart disease, bronchitis, emphysema, stroke, and many cancers, among other unpleasant conditions. Certainly, no one relishes the thought of potentially losing his or her vision, but the threat pales next to some of the other, potentially fatal ramifications. Indeed, cataract surgery to replace fogged-over lenses is now quite commonplace, with an over 90 percent success rate at restoring patients' vision, with relatively few complications. Plus, while quitting smoking immediately may halt or even reverse some of the damage smoking can do to the body, former smokers still have a substantially greater risk of cataract development than those who never smoked, even 20 years after kicking the habit.

So it seems unlikely that the link between smoking and cataracts will be the "tipping point" in causing many smokers to stub out their butts for good. After all, over 40 years have passed since warning labels on cigarette packaging began informing American smokers of the health dangers of the "cancer sticks" within, and yet the habit persists: over 40 percent of the current US population has smoked regularly at some point. Nonetheless, perhaps the link can be yet another weapon in the arsenal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campaign to reduce the prevalence of cigarette smoking among adults to 12 percent by the year 2010—a goal that at the current rate of decline will remain sadly unmet.

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