4 min

How alcohol affects your eyes

CONTENTS

Can Alcohol Affect Your Vision?

Alcohol, in both short-term and long-term consumption, can indeed affect your vision. While the occasional drink may not lead to lasting damage, frequent and excessive alcohol use can cause significant and sometimes irreversible effects on visual health.

Alcohol impairs the communication between neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting how the brain processes what the eyes see.

Your Complete Guide To Dry Eyes

What are Alcohol's short-term effects on your eyes?

  • One of the most immediate and noticeable effects of alcohol on our vision is blurry or distorted sight. This effect is due to the impact alcohol has on the brain and its communication with the eyes. Specifically, alcohol inhibits the neurotransmitters in our brains, slowing their pace and affecting how our brains process what we see.
    Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the body to trigger various physiological responses. When alcohol enters the system, it suppresses these messengers, causing delays and disruptions in signal transmission. As a result, the instructions sent from the brain to the eye muscles and the pupil become less precise and slower, leading to difficulty focusing. This causes blurred or double vision commonly associated with alcohol consumption.

  • Another significant short-term effect of alcohol on eyesight is a reduction in peripheral vision, often called tunnel vision. This means that while your central vision remains relatively clear, your side (or peripheral) vision becomes increasingly blurry or distorted, creating a tunnel-like effect.
    Again, this is down to how alcohol impairs the brain's ability to process visual signals. The retina—the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye—sends signals about what we see to the brain, where these signals are processed into images. When alcohol is consumed, the brain's ability to interpret these signals effectively is compromised, particularly in the peripheral areas of our visual field.

  • Alcohol also causes physical changes to the eyes themselves. One of the most common short-term effects of alcohol consumption is bloodshot or red eyes. This is because alcohol causes blood vessels—including those in the eyes—to expand, a condition known as vasodilation.
    When the blood vessels in the whites of our eyes dilate, they become more visible, giving the eyes a reddish appearance. While this is generally temporary and resolves as the alcohol is metabolised and removed from the body, frequent occurrences can lead to the blood vessels in the eyes being permanently damaged, leading to persistently red eyes.
    Eye sprays and drops may be helpful, as well as some home remedies like placing a cold compress, or a spoon, which creates a drop in temperature on the eye surface, helping restrict the blood vessels and reduce the redness.

  • Alcohol is a diuretic, causing your body to remove fluids faster and giving you dry eyes. This dehydration extends to your eyes, accelerating the symptoms of dry eye syndrome (itchiness, a burning sensation, blurry vision, watery eyes etc.). Try to replace lost fluid with glasses of water. A rough guide is 1 large glass of water per 2 units of alcohol drunk. Also, remember to remove your contact lenses before going to bed, as they limit the amount of oxygen reaching your cornea - and may lead to long-term conditions like keratitis (inflammation of the cornea). Using an eye spray or eye drops is also recommended to give a boost of moisture.

  • Eyelid twitching is another indicator of (excessive) alcohol consumption. This painless, but annoying eye spasm is also known as myokymia. The twitching sensation should go away within a few days. If it lasts longer than 2 weeks, you should see a doctor. If you find your eyelids twitch on a regular basis, it may be because of stress, lack of sleep, too much caffeine or a vitamin deficiency.

  • Alcohol causes your body to dehydrate, which in turn causes your organs (which includes your skin) to 'fight back' by retaining water - which may lead to bags under eyes.

  • Alcohol can slow the reaction time of your pupils, making them less responsive to changes in light. This can result in increased sensitivity to light and difficulties adjusting from dark to bright environments.

  • This is a quite common. It’s a symptom of dry eyes and dry eye disease for some people. The diuretic effects of alcohol cause your body to remove water (through your urine) at a higher rate. This dehydrates your eyes, accelerating the symptoms of dry eye syndrome (which include itchiness, a burning sensation, blurry vision, and for some people, watery eyes).

  • “Alcohol is a diuretic, causing your body to remove fluids faster. This dehydration extends to your eyes, accelerating the symptoms of dry eyes.”

    What are Alcohol's long-term effects on your eyes?

  • One of the most common eye conditions associated with heavy drinking over a prolonged period is the development of Cataracts. Cataracts involve the clouding of the eye's lens, which sits behind the iris and pupil. This clouding can interfere with the quality of the light that reaches the retina, leading to blurry or foggy vision and, if left untreated, blindness.
    The link between alcohol and cataracts isn't entirely understood. Still, research suggests heavy drinking might contribute to cataracts' onset and progression. One reason might be the nutritional deficiencies commonly seen in people with chronic alcohol use, as nutrients like vitamins C and E and antioxidants are crucial for eye health.

  • Long-term alcohol use is also linked to an increased risk of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). This condition affects the macula, the part of the retina responsible for sharp, central vision. Over time, AMD can lead to a loss of central vision, impacting activities like reading, driving, and recognizing faces.
    Again, the precise relationship between alcohol and AMD is not entirely clear. However, it's thought that alcohol's toxic effects, combined with malnutrition often seen in chronic alcoholics, could contribute to damage in the macula, leading to AMD.

  • Another severe eye condition related to chronic alcohol use is optic neuropathy, sometimes called tobacco-alcohol amblyopia. This condition involves damage to the optic nerve, the bundle of nerve fibres that transmit visual information from your eyes to your brain. When these fibres are damaged, the transmission of visual information is disrupted, leading to vision loss.
    Alcohol-induced optic neuropathy is often associated with poor dietary habits common in alcoholism. Deficiencies in particular nutrients, especially B vitamins, can harm the optic nerve. Moreover, the toxic effect of alcohol itself may directly damage this crucial nerve.

  • Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to persistent dry eyes due to its diuretic effect. Over time, this chronic dryness can damage the cornea and lead to discomfort and vision problems.

  • This condition involves changes to the vitreous humour, the gel-like substance inside the eye. Alcohol, especially when consumed heavily, may contribute to this degeneration, leading to floaters, flashes, and potentially more serious eye conditions.

  • Chronic alcohol use can impair the ability to differentiate between different colours, especially shades of blue and green.

  • Also known as amblyopia. A lazy eye can stem from excessive drinking, which increases your risk of vision loss and/or permanent damage.

  • Vitamins are essential for eye function. Heavy drinking drains your body's natural reserves - which may result in optic neuritis. This condition inflames the optic nerve, leading to loss of central vision and blurry vision.

  • How Does Alcohol Cause Blurred Vision?

    When we consume alcohol, it impacts various bodily systems, including our visual system, leading to potential temporary disturbances such as blurred vision. But how exactly does this happen? The answer lies in the intricate workings of our brain, specifically the neurotransmitters - the chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the body.

    Alcohol, as a central nervous system depressant, slows down the communication speed of these neurotransmitters. This slowdown means that the instructions our brain sends to different body parts, including our eyes, are not transmitted as efficiently or effectively as without alcohol.

    When we focus on the specific impact on our eyes, it's essential to understand that our eyes rely heavily on these neurotransmitter signals for proper function. Eye muscles need to coordinate accurately to focus on objects at different distances, and pupils need to adjust size rapidly in response to changes in light levels.

    How Does Alcohol Cause Blurred Vision? (cont.)

    When alcohol slows down neurotransmitter communication, these activities can be hindered. The eye muscles may struggle to react quickly enough, causing difficulty maintaining a clear focus on objects. Similarly, the pupils might not constrict or dilate at the necessary speed in response to changes in light, leading to the potential blurring of vision.

    Furthermore, alcohol can affect the vestibular system in the inner ear, which is responsible for maintaining balance and coordinating eye movements. Disturbance to this system may also contribute to blurry or double vision.

    What Causes Blurry Vision

    “Alcohol reduces the oxygen in your blood, which causes the tiny blood vessels on the eye’s surface (the sclera) to dilate. This means more blood flows through them, giving your eyes an inflamed, red appearance.”

    Is the Redness in My Eyes Caused by Alcohol?

    Alcohol is a vasodilator, relaxing and expanding blood vessels. This expansion, especially in the conjunctiva (the clear tissue over the white part of the eyes), makes blood vessels more visible, causing red or bloodshot eyes.

    This effect, typically temporary, can become persistent with frequent and chronic alcohol consumption. Repeated dilation can damage the blood vessels over time, compromising their ability to constrict. This can result in consistently red eyes, even without drinking.

    Alcohol, as a diuretic, can cause dehydration leading to dry eyes, which may contribute to redness. This insufficient moisture can cause eye irritation and redness. Therefore, if you notice persistent redness in your eyes after drinking, it might be time to reconsider your alcohol consumption.

    Can Alcohol Affect Eye Pressure or Contribute to Glaucoma?

    Alcohol's impact on eye pressure and its potential to contribute to conditions like Glaucoma is complex. Some research indicates that alcohol consumption may lead to a temporary decrease in intraocular pressure (IOP). This is because alcohol is a diuretic and can reduce fluid volume within the eye. However, this is a short-lived effect, and the pressure often increases again as the effects of alcohol wear off.

    On the other hand, chronic and heavy alcohol use can contribute to a long-term increase in eye pressure. This is because the continued consumption of alcohol can lead to changes in the blood flow to and from the eye, potentially causing a build-up of fluid and an increase in pressure over time.

    Glaucoma, a condition characterised by damage to the optic nerve due to increased IOP, can be exacerbated by these fluctuations in eye pressure. Therefore, it's crucial for individuals with glaucoma or at risk for the condition to be cautious with their alcohol intake.

    What Is Glaucoma?

    “One of the most common eye conditions associated with heavy drinking over a prolonged period is the development of Cataracts. The link between Alcohol and Cataracts isn't entirely understood. Still, research suggests heavy drinking might contribute to cataracts' onset and progression.”

    Does Alcohol Speed Up the Progression of Cataracts?

    Alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of Cataracts. The exact mechanism is not yet fully understood:

    • One possible mechanism is that alcohol consumption can increase oxidative stress in the eye's lens. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body's ability to neutralise them. This can cause damage to the proteins in the lens, leading to the development of cataracts.
    • Another possible way alcohol may contribute to cataract formation is through changes in the metabolism of the lens proteins. Studies have shown that chronic alcohol use can affect the metabolism of specific amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. This disruption in protein metabolism could potentially contribute to the development of cataracts.
    • There is also some evidence to suggest that alcohol consumption may interact with other risk factors for cataracts, such as smoking and poor nutrition.
    Cataracts - Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

    How Does Alcohol Affect the Eyes' Ability to Adjust to Light and Dark?

    Alcohol significantly impacts the eyes' ability to adjust to varying light levels. The substance interferes with the functioning of the muscles in the iris, the coloured part of the eye that controls the size of the pupil. Under normal conditions, these muscles adjust rapidly, shrinking the pupil in bright light to reduce light intake and widening it in the dark to maximise light intake.

    However, when alcohol is consumed, it slows down the reaction time of these muscles, making them less responsive to changes in light intensity. As a result, individuals may struggle to adjust their vision when transitioning between differently lit environments, such as moving from a bright, sunny outdoors into a dimly lit room. This can result in temporary vision impairment, difficulty focusing, and potential discomfort. This underlines why tasks that rely on good visual acuity, such as driving, should never be undertaken after consuming alcohol.

    “Alcohol affects the iris muscles controlling the pupil size, slowing their reaction time. This can cause temporary vision impairment, focus difficulty, and discomfort - so tasks requiring sharp vision, like driving, should be avoided .”

    Can Alcohol-induced Dehydration Affect the Eyes?

    Absolutely, alcohol-induced dehydration can indeed affect the eyes. Alcohol is a diuretic, which increases urine production and, consequently, can lead to dehydration if the lost fluid is not replaced. This dehydration can extend to the eyes, causing them to become dry and irritated.

    Dry eyes may cause discomfort, such as a gritty or scratchy feeling, and temporary blurred vision because the eye's surface is not adequately lubricated. This lack of moisture can also make the eyes more susceptible to allergens and infections, further exacerbating discomfort and potential vision disturbances.

    In addition to these immediate effects, chronic dehydration from regular heavy drinking can lead to longer-term eye health problems. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain adequate hydration, especially when consuming alcohol.

    There is a definite connection between alcohol consumption and dry eyes. Alcohol is a diuretic, increasing urine output and promoting dehydration. This dehydration can have a direct effect on your eyes.
    Under normal circumstances, your body produces tears to keep your eyes moisturised and lubricated, ensuring clear vision and comfort. However, when the body is dehydrated due to alcohol consumption, it struggles to produce enough tears. This lack of sufficient lubrication leads to the condition known as dry eyes.

    The symptoms of dry eyes include a stinging or burning sensation, itchiness, redness, light sensitivity, and feeling like something is stuck in your eyes. In some cases, paradoxically, dry eyes can lead to watery eyes due to reflex tearing as a response to the eye's dryness.

    Your Complete Guide To Dry Eyes

    how to get rid of puffy eyes after drinking alcohol

    • Cold compresses reduce inflammation and swelling by reducing blood flow. Use anything cold (ice pack, frozen vegetables, cold cucumber slices or spoons) over closed eyes for a few minutes.
    • Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor (constricting blood vessels) which reduces swelling. You could also try putting cold tea bags (caffeinated) on your closed eyes.
    Bags Under Eyes - Causes & Treatment

    Can Alcohol Withdrawal Have Effects on the Eyes?

  • In terms of eye-related symptoms, one common issue people might experience during alcohol withdrawal is hypersensitivity to light, a condition known as photophobia. Being in brightly lit environments can make it uncomfortable or even painful.

  • Visual hallucinations are another symptom that can occur during alcohol withdrawal. These hallucinations can be very distressing and may involve seeing non-existent patterns, objects, or lights.

  • In extreme cases, prolonged alcohol abuse and subsequent withdrawal can lead to severe conditions such as optic neuropathy and optic atrophy. Optic neuropathy refers to damage to the optic nerve, which can cause vision loss. Optic atrophy is a condition characterized by the degeneration of optic nerve fibres, which can potentially result in blindness.

  • Conclusion

    The effects of alcohol on eye health range from temporary discomfort to permanent damage. While an occasional drink may not lead to serious eye health issues, excessive and chronic alcohol consumption poses a significant risk. If you are concerned about the effects of alcohol on your vision, please consult with your eye specialist. It's important to remember that the best approach to maintaining good eye health includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, protective eyewear, and regular check-ups with an optician or ophthalmologist.
    As is often the case with matters related to health, moderation and early intervention are the keys. So, keep an eye on your alcohol consumption for the sake of your eyes and your overall health.

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    How Alcohol Affects Your Eyes - Resources & References

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    2. Acute Effects of Alcohol on Vision and Ocular Motor Function. Andreasson, S., et al. (1996). Acute Effects of Alcohol on Vision and Ocular Motor Function. Graefe's Archive for Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology, 234(8), 516–520.
    3. Acute Effects of Alcohol on the Eye. Tranel, D., et al. (1981). Acute Effects of Alcohol on the Eye. American Journal of Optometry and Physiological Optics, 58(3), 206–211.
    4. Effects of Alcohol on the Visual System. Vongvaivanichakul, P., et al. (2013). Effects of Alcohol on the Visual System. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 96(2), 250–256.
    5. Alcohol, Tobacco and Age-Related Macular Degeneration: Effects of Brief Interventions. O'Donovan, G., et al. (2005). Alcohol, Tobacco and Age-Related Macular Degeneration: Effects of Brief Interventions. Preventive Medicine, 41(2), 447–453.
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    7. Influence of Alcohol Consumption on IOP in a Population-Based Study. Xu, L., et al. (2007). Influence of Alcohol Consumption on IOP in a Population-Based Study. The British Journal of Ophthalmology, 91(3), 383–386.
    8. Ethanol-Induced Changes in Tear Volume and in the Puncta of Rats. Hong, S., et al. (2013). Ethanol-Induced Changes in Tear Volume and in the Puncta of Rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 76(1), 38–44.
    9. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond, Mirijello, A., et al. (2015). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology, 3(3), 263–275.
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    11. Tomany, S. C., Wang, J. J., Van Leeuwen, R., Klein, R., Mitchell, P., Vingerling, J. R., ... & Klein, B. E. (2004). Risk factors for incident age-related macular degeneration: pooled findings from 3 continents. Ophthalmology, 111(7), 1280-1287.
    12. Worthy, G. (1985). The effects of alcohol on intraocular pressure. International ophthalmology, 7(4), 231-236.
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