8 ways alcohol can affect the eyes



S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise and Fitness)
@AVogelUK
Ask our Eye Health Advisor


15 January 2020

How does alcohol affect the eyes?

Alcohol can affect the eyes in several different ways, with some symptoms being more serious than others. Some issues that can arise as a result of drinking include:

  1. Blurred/double vision
  2. Red eyes
  3. Dry eyes
  4. Twitching/trouble focusing
  5. Loss of vision
  6. Distorted vision
  7. Involuntary eye movement
  8. Yellow sclera.

Find out more about why alcohol causes these symptoms and how you can avoid them.

1. Blurred/double vision

Blurred or double vision is a common side effect of a heavy drinking session; however, this is usually a temporary problem that is unlikely to have long-term implications for our eye health.

Alcohol, including industry favourites like wine and alcohol, contains carbohydrates (sugars) which can raise blood sugar levels. This can be a contributing factor to blurred vision, as well as other issues, such as dizziness, that arise after drinking.

According to The World Health Organisation, a pint of cider can contain as much as 5 teaspoons of sugar.1 So, we can see how a few of these on night out can easily disrupt blood sugar levels and distort vision. After you have stopped drinking, it should take around 24 hours for blood sugar levels to normalise.

As alcohol is inflammatory, this can be another contributing factor to vision problems as this may cause the eye lens to swell.

2. Red eyes

Red or bloodshot eyes are another side effect of drinking too much in one go, as alcohol can cause the blood vessels in the eyes to swell.

Not only do swollen blood vessels cause a bloodshot look, though, itchiness and irritation can also develop.

If your eyes are feeling a little uncomfortable the morning after the night before, you could try some lubricating eye drops to help ease the discomfort. This can also be helpful in alleviating dry eyes which, as I am just about to discuss, is another problem associated with drinking alcohol.


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3. Dry eyes

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes frequent urination so it can contribute to dehydration. Plus, a side effect of alcohol is sweating which can deplete fluid levels further. As a result of both of these things, dry eyes can become a problem after drinking as there aren't sufficient tears to keep the eye lubricated.

Dry eyes can cause irritation, as well as blurred vision, redness, itching and sensitivity to light which is why I recommend keeping some of our moisturising eye drops to hand to ease discomfort.

4. Twitching/trouble focusing

Too much alcohol reduces the reaction time of the pupils. This means they don't react to different lights and colours as they normally would, leading to twitching and trouble focusing.

Again, these are usually short-lived problems that should ease as the alcohol wears off. They may become more prominent, however, if large amounts of alcohol are consumed regularly.

5. Loss of vision

Longer term, a very high consumption of alcohol can lead to loss of vision, a problem known as toxic amblyopia. This occurs when the toxins contained within alcohol cause damage to the optic nerve.

There are actually over a million nerve fibres that make up the optic nerve. These carry messages from the eyes to the brain. For example, if the eyes detect light, this message is relayed up to the brain which determines it as being just that, light. So, damage to the optic nerve means that messages from the eyes to the brain can't get through and blindness can result.

6. Distorted vision

Another serious issue that can arise after drinking lots of alcohol on a regular basis is distorted vision. This is because alcohol reduces the effectiveness of communication between neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemical messengers send messages from the brain to the body.

If these aren't functioning efficiently, this can lead to a delay in communication between the brain and eyes. In turn, this can weaken eye muscle coordination, leading to distorted or double vision.

On top of this, headaches and migraines are common side effects of alcohol consumption and these may also lead to distorted vision.

7. Involuntary eye movement

In the long term, involuntary eye movements back and forth can result from heavy drinking. As well as being uncomfortable, this can lead to reduced vision.

8. Yellow sclera

The white part of the eye (sclera) can get yellow after years of drinking, plus this can be a sign of liver disease, which can also result from heavy drinking.

When alcohol impairs liver function, this organ is unable to function properly. Yellowness in the eyes is then caused by a build-up of red blood cells which can't be removed by the impaired liver.

Cutting down on alcohol will improve the health of the liver and, in turn, the condition of the eyes. Your GP is the best person to offer advice on this, though charities such as Drinkaware are also available.

My advice

The risk of developing health problems rises the more you drink alcohol so, if you do enjoy alcohol, drinking in moderation is key.

UK guidelines state that adults should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol per week. 14 units of alcohol equates to about 6 pints of beer, or 6 glasses of wine. Ideally, these should be spread out through the course of the week, rather than being consumed all at once.

Having drink-free days during the week can help ensure you don't drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week.

Cutting down on alcohol improves circulation meaning the eyes receive oxygen and nutrients to prevent disease and damage like macular degeneration and glaucoma.

When consuming alcohol, it is best to have a glass of water between drinks to stay hydrated. It's also advisable that you don't drink on an empty stomach, to lessen the effects of the alcohol.

When it comes to the health of the eyes, it is recommended that adults get their eyes tested every 2 years. This can detect any changes in vision, or any underlying health issues. You should have an eye test, even if you are not aware of any issues with your eyesight.

Children, or those with specific medical conditions, may need to have their eyes tested more frequently than every two years. You can speak to your local optician for more information.

References

1 https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/ 

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