Remember the last time your eyes were exposed to cigarette smoke for more than a few minutes?

Whether you were the one smoking or just waiting on someone to finish their cigarette, chances are your eyes felt dry and irritated. As you blinked, you may have even felt them gritty or burning.

Getting dry eyes from smoking is common. But can smoking cause dry eyes that is chronic and harm your vision? And what are the long-term effects of smoking on your eyes?

Read on to discover the link between smoking and dry eyes and the effects of smoke and vaping aerosols on the eyes.

Does Smoking Cigarettes Cause Dry Eyes?

Cigarette smokers are twice as likely to develop dry eye disease than non-smokers according to an article published in the Scientific American.

Smoking damages the lipid layer of the tear film, research shows. Together with a watery and mucin layer, this lipid layer forms the tear film that protects and lubricates the ocular surface of the eye.

Imbalances in the tear film increase tear evaporation and cause dry eyes and other symptoms. Your eyes need a healthy tear film to work well and stay healthy.

A long-term disruption in the tear film can make your eyes feel constantly dry and gritty. It can even lead to permanent corneal damage that can cause vision loss.

woman with dark hair and glasses smoking a cigarette outside seen from profile

What’s more, a 2016 study suggests that chronic smokers are more likely to suffer from meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). MGD occurs when the tear glands don’t secrete enough oil into the tear film or when this oil is of low quality. MGD is one of the leading dry eye causes.

To make matters worse, cigarette smoke has over 7,000 chemicals, many of which can affect your eyes.

A 2021 study found that some of these chemicals cause an iron buildup upon contact with the surface of the eye. This can result in damage to the epithelial cells in the cornea, the outermost layer of the eye.

The bad news is that you don’t even have to be a smoker to suffer the adverse effects of cigarette smoke on your eyes. Second-hand smoke may get into your eyes and affect the tear film.

Smoke can also worsen existing dry eye symptoms. What’s more, it can affect people with sensitive eyes, causing irritation and other unpleasant symptoms. Eye doctors often advise people diagnosed with dry eye disease to avoid smoke exposure.

Can smoking cause eye problems other than dry eyes? Smoking increases the risk of cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy according to the New York State Department of Health. Some of these conditions can cause severe vision loss and blindness.

So, the question “Is smoking bad for your eyes?” has a very clear answer: “Yes.”

Do Electronic Cigarettes Cause Dry Eyes?

Electronic cigarettes or vape pens are small devices that heat up a liquid into aerosols that the user inhales. These aerosols contain flavorings and may also have nicotine, a highly addictive stimulant drug found in tobacco. Smoking an electronic cigarette is known as vaping.

A 2019 study measured tear function in 21 vapers and 21 nonsmokers. It found that vapers experienced moderate to severe eye dryness. They also had a lower quality tear film. Vapers who used a greater voltage had worse dry eye symptoms and a less stable tear film.

The negative effects of vaping on the eyes appear to be due to nicotine and the by-products of vaping.

woman in red vaping on a bench outdoors against blurry green background

So, do electronic cigarettes cause dry eyes? While more research is needed to fully understand the effects of vaping on the eyes, the evidence so far is clear.

Electronic cigarettes can cause dry eye symptoms or worsen existing dry eyes. If you’re concerned about developing chronic dry eye, it’s best to avoid using electronic cigarettes or being exposed to their vapors.

How Does Smoking Affect Your Eyes?

Repeated exposure to smoke has a host of negative effects on your eyes from irritation and inflammation to blood vessel constriction. Let’s take a closer look at how smoking affects your eyes.

  • Irritates your eyes. The toxins in smoke have a negative effect on the surface of the eye, causing irritation, burning, and a gritty feeling. Smoking may also cause red eyes.
  • Increases inflammation in the eyes. Smoke makes blood vessels in the eye swell and become more fragile. If some of these vessels break, they can leak fluid into the retina, increasing the risk of retinal detachment.
  • Lowers the levels of the macular pigments lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants play a key role in maintaining the health of the eyes.
  • Increases the amount of free radicals that can damage the eyes. Free radicals can produce toxins that damage your eyes leading to cataracts and other conditions.
  • Constricts the retinal blood vessels and increases blood pressure. These changes can contribute to age-related macular degeneration and other eye diseases.

With so many smoking effects on eyes, avoiding or at least limiting exposure to smoke is important to safeguard your vision.

woman holding ice-cream cone in her left hand and smiling against blurry NY street background

The Wrap Up

There is a clear link between smoking and dry eyes. Smoking is one of the major dry eye causes. You don’t even have to be a heavy nicotine smoker to develop dry eyes.

Vaping or being exposed to second-hand smoke or vapors from electronic cigarettes can destabilize the tear film and damage eye cells. Symptoms may be mild at first but worsen with time.

Often, one of the first signs of repeated smoke exposure is dry eyes. Developing dry eyes is unpleasant, but there is a lot you can do to treat and even cure the condition. The first step is getting your eyes tested.

Worried that you may have dry eyes? An online dry eye test can help you find out. It’s quick and easy and you can do it without any preparation.

Take the Dry Eye Test

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