Smoking and Dry Eye

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on May 30, 2023
2 min read

Does tobacco smoke or even just the smell of it leave your eyes scratchy and gritty? You're not the only one. Smoking is a common trigger for dry eye. You can try to prevent the problem. Or you can treat your symptoms when they happen.

Cigarette smoke has over 7,000 chemicals. Many of them irritate and damage your eyes. Smokers are twice as likely to get dry eye as people who don't light up.

Why does smoke make the condition worse? Every time you blink, your eyelids coat your eye with a protective layer of tears. This keeps out dust and debris. But chemicals in smoke can cause this layer to break down. Without enough tears to shield them, your eyes get irritated. Smoking also seems to change the composition of your tears. This can lead to more symptoms.

Being a smoker poses the biggest risk. But just being nearby when someone else is lighting up can trigger symptoms. Some people with dry eye are very sensitive to irritants like cigarette smoke, and it doesn't take much to set off their symptoms.

The best and most obvious way to avoid the problem is to stay away from people who are smoking. But sometimes that's not possible. If you know you're going to have to be around smoke, you can:

  • Pretreat your eyes. If you use drops or gels for dry eye, try putting some in before you're around smoke. That will coat your eyes to protect them and prevent symptoms. If you take prescription medication, ask your doctor if taking some beforehand could help.
  • Limit contact as much as possible. Don't let people smoke in your home. And keep visits short if you're in a place where people smoke. If you can, meet outside rather than inside.
  • Speak up. Don't be afraid to ask a person who smokes not to do it while you're around. Politely explain that it's a trigger for your symptoms.

If your symptoms get worse, you can use dry eye treatments like over-the-counter artificial tears or gels or prescription treatments if your doctor has given them to you.

And if you smoke, dry eye relief is yet another reason to quit. Keep in mind that smoking is linked with many more serious eye diseases, like cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma, along with many other medical problems. So, during your next appointment, talk to your doctor about making a plan to quit.