While we all know that drinking alcohol can harm our bodies, what does it do specifically to our eyes? Short-term exposure to alcohol can alter vision, but what about repeated exposure to alcohol? Are there any permanent effects that you need to worry about?
People who consider themselves to be "social drinkers" are at risk of developing long-term health issues because of the amount of alcohol they regularly consume. Regularly drinking doesn’t mean binge drinking or getting drunk daily – it can be defined as 3 alcoholic beverages for men or 2 for women daily. A common form is wine, which is a staple for many Americans during their evening meal. The majority of people do not realize that consuming alcohol on a regular basis can be the cause of significant long-term health problems and other life-threatening effects.
Short-term or immediate vision effects of drinking too much can impair your peripheral vision, resulting in tunnel vision. This makes it harder for your pupils to react, so they can’t constrict or dilate properly. Even common tasks, such as driving at night, can become a challenge with the direct impact of headlights decreasing reaction times.
In addition, alcohol has been proven to alter the ability to perceive contrast. Researchers in Australia found that consuming alcohol at their legal limit of 0.05% greatly affected the ability to visually adjust for brightness and contrast. The perception of contrast was reduced by 30% at the legal blood alcohol level. According to the study, this short-term disability is caused by how our visual system processes contrast or brightness differences, making distinctions between different objects based on lightness and darkness, like stoplights, much more difficult.
Other effects of drinking alcohol regularly can result in dry eyes and eyelid twitching, known as myokymia. This triggers short-term inflammation and double vision that causes burning and itching of the eyes, migraines, and sensitivity to light. Long-term symptoms of this effect may cause the blood vessels in your eyes to grow, making your eyes often appear red and bloodshot.
Over time, consuming alcohol regularly can increase your risk of developing premature cataract formation. This can develop as early as your 40 years of age. Long-term impairments may also include permanent blurring of vision or double vision, which are caused by the weakening of the eye muscles, resulting in a slower reaction time.
One of the most vision-threatening effects of long-term alcohol consumption is optic neuropathy or optic atrophy. This condition can also be referred to as tobacco-alcohol amblyopia, caused by people who drink or smoke excessively. It results in a painless loss of vision, decreased peripheral vision, and reduced color vision.
Due to the increased risk for heart disease caused by alcohol, signs of heart disease can be observed in the eyes. Symptoms include optic neuropathy, atrophy, bleeding in the retina from vascular occlusions, and even hypertensive retinopathy.
If you have questions about your eye and vision health or are experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to our Front Range Eye Health Center team or make an appointment. We look forward to speaking with you!