The effects of alcohol on vision have been something of a running joke in popular culture for decades now. Cartoon characters are often depicted with spinning curlicues for eyes to signify drunkenness and the idea of putting on “beer goggles” to make the people at the club look a bit more attractive is a favorite punchline for writers of sitcoms and commercials alike.
The fact is that the impacts of alcohol on your vision are no laughing matter. Not only can acute alcohol intoxication lead to changes in visual acuity that put you at significant risk for accident and injury, but prolonged alcohol abuse can lead to permanent and severe eye injury, sometimes resulting in irreversible blindness (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This article examines both the short-term and long-ranging effects of alcohol exposure on your eyes.
You don’t have to be a chronic and heavy abuser of alcohol to experience its effects on your vision. Drinking, even at moderate levels, can have an immediate impact on your eyesight. Double vision and blurriness are the classic and the most obvious impacts of acute alcohol intoxication, but they’re far from the only ones (7).
Impacts on Eye Movements
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system (CNS) and this can have a significant impact on your eye movements, which can severely affect your visual acuity (2, 6, 8). For example, you may have trouble fixing on a visual object or tracking an object or visual path. Plus, because your eyes are meant to work in seamless coordination, something referred to as “binocular vision,” when eye movements are impaired, your eyes’ ability to work together is also impeded. Your binocular vision is compromised and the result is the blurred and double vision stereotypical of alcohol intoxication (9).
Color Sensitivity and Night Vision
When you consume alcohol, not only are your eye movements impacted because of the effects of drinking on the central nervous system, but so too is the entire visual system. Exposure to alcohol detrimentally impacts nearly all of the body’s tissues, from the blood vessels to the epithelial layers and the cones and rods of the retina.
Studies show that when you consume alcohol, your color sensitivity and differentiation decline (10). You’re also far more likely to have difficulty with night vision, as alcohol exposure reduces your ability to discriminate between visual objects in low-light conditions (10). Research also shows that alcohol ingestion decreases the eye’s contrast sensitivity, which is also a reason why your visual acuity is further reduced in low light conditions (11). But it doesn’t stop there, because exposure to alcohol also decreases what is known as “retinal straylight,” which refers to the retina’s ability to consolidate light impulses into a coherent visual image (11).
These assorted effects on the light-sensing structures inside the eye don’t just compromise your vision, but they put you at significant risk of accident and injury, particularly when driving. Research shows that the deterioration of color and contrast sensitivity and retinal straylight functioning can profoundly impede driving ability, especially at night (10, 11).
Vision, Cognition, and Emotion
You might be surprised to see the subject of cognition and emotion included in a discussion of alcohol and vision impairment, but the connections are strong and important. If you or someone you love has battled alcohol use disorder (AUD), then you know all too well the toll the disease takes on relationships.
What you probably didn’t realize, though, is that the same mechanisms which lead to visual disturbances when you’ve ingested alcohol also impair the brain’s ability to process visual stimuli relating to emotions (12). That means that when you ingest alcohol, you are less able to “see” and to recognize the visual cues of others. For example, moderate to heavy drinkers are far less likely than their sober counterparts to be able to differentiate between anger and fear in the facial expression and body language of those around them (12). When you literally cannot process the affective signals of those you love when you are under the influence, the end result is only further harm, more lasting resentments, and deeper misunderstanding between you and yours.
The immediate effects of alcohol on your vision may be unpleasant, but the long-term impacts can be even more so. A substantial and growing body of evidence indicates that prolonged alcohol abuse can have a devastating impact on your eye health, potentially resulting in vision impairment and even permanent blindness.
Toxic Optic Neuropathy
One of the most serious long-term effects of alcohol abuse on vision is toxic optic neuropathy (1, 5). Toxic optic neuropathy, when left untreated, can result in permanent blindness in both eyes. While the exact mechanisms of the disorder aren’t quite clear, it is often strongly associated with acute methanol toxicity, as might occur in someone who consumes alcohol-based hand sanitizer to counteract symptoms of withdrawal when access to ethyl alcohol isn’t available (2).
Toxic optic neuropathy isn’t just a dire complication of acute methyl alcohol poisoning. It can also occur as a result of prolonged and severe alcohol abuse. In such cases, the disorder is usually the result of chronic malnourishment of the eye, as well as neurological changes in the visual processing centers of the brain borne of prolonged alcohol exposure (6).
Age-Related Macular Degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) is one of the leading causes of blindness in adults over the age of 55 (13). The disorder causes the gradual loss of vision, beginning with the slow deterioration of central vision and expanding outward to affect most or all of the visual field. Evidence suggests that heavy alcohol abuse over a prolonged period of time (years or decades) substantially increases the risk of developing early-onset (i.e. prior to the age of 55) ARMD (6). Even for moderate drinkers, however, the risk of ARMD after the age of 55 is significantly higher than for non-drinkers (6).
Studies show that it’s not only the visual centers of the brain or the inner structures of the eye that can suffer significant damage from prolonged alcohol abuse. Chronic alcohol exposure has also been linked to damage to the exterior structures of the eye, including the lens. As a result of the effects of alcohol on the lens of the eyeball, those with AUD are at higher risk than the general population for developing cataracts (4).
How Bayshore Can Help
Alcohol dependency can cloud your view of the world both figuratively and literally. At Bayshore, however, we can help you regain your vision of a brighter tomorrow. Our multidisciplinary team of recovery experts offers the individualized care our clients need to forge their own unique paths to sobriety. We offer whole person support, ranging from psychiatric care to nutritional counseling to alternative therapeutics, such as art therapy, massage, yoga, and meditation. All of these are designed to help you build the healthy, happy, and dependency-free life you deserve. If you are struggling with alcohol dependency and you fear the impact alcohol is taking on your life and health, including your vision, reach out to Bayshore today to explore how our team of dedicated professionals can help!