How Does Alcohol Affect Your Vision?

Author: Premier Eye Associates

Most of us tend to enjoy a nice glass of wine or a beer with friends every now and again. Sometimes, this becomes overconsumption. When we drink to much, our eyes can start to act a little funny—have you ever wondered why?


How Much Alcohol is Too Much for Your Vision?

Drinking is as popular as ever between the covid quarantines, bars and clubs, increased popularity of breweries and wineries across the nation, and as a social hobby or destressing mechanism.

While it is fine to have a drink every once and awhile, overconsumption is bad for your health. But at what point does drinking go from ok to harmful to your body?

The national institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism defines drinking in moderation as 2 or fewer drinks in a day for males, and 1 or fewer drinks in a day for females.

Heavy drinking in males is defined as consuming more than 4 alcoholic drinks within 24 hours, or more than 14 drinks throughout a given week.

Heavy drinking in females is defined as consuming more than 3 alcoholic drinks within 24 hours or more than 7 drinks per week.

Binge drinking is another category that is just as dangerous as heavy drinking and consists of either a male drinking 5 or more drinks, or a female drinking 4 or more drinks, within a 2 hour time period.

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are not necessarily considered alcoholism, but most certainly can be. Alcoholism is the dependence on alcohol—the feeling to, desire of, or craving of alcohol consumption.

The Mayo Clinic defines alcoholism as the “inability to control drinking due to a physical and/or emotional dependence on alcohol”. Typically this is seen in heavy drinkers or binge drinkers, however just because you are a heavy drinker or binge drinker does not necessarily mean you are an alcoholic.

Nevertheless, if you are a heavy or binge drinker, you should be aware of possible health complications and what to watch for as potential adverse long-term side effects.

Generally speaking, anything above drinking in moderation can negatively impact your health. The more you drink, the greater the health risks become. Therefore, it is best to drink well below the “moderate” classification.

In fact, anytime your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.08% or higher, you are damaging your body.

Alcohol is known to affect the central nervous system, raise blood sugar, cause heart complications, liver disease, digestive problems, erectile dysfunction, menstruation problems, weaken your immune system, and many others!


Why Do I Get Double Vision After Drinking Too Much Alcohol?

Overconsumption of alcohol (a BAC of 0.08% or greater) depresses the central nervous system—this results in slow or inhibited muscle control.

Each eye is controlled by the stimulation or inhibition of 6 different muscles (for a grand total of 12 coordinated muscles between the two eyes). These muscles are constantly being flexed and relaxed to keep your vision stable and in the direction you are choosing to focus on.

If even one muscle is not working appropriately, it can cause the eyes to move incorrectly and therefore cause double vision.

Not only that, but as the central nervous system is depressed, the pupils of the eyes become sluggish.

In a normal, non-intoxicated situation, the pupil—the “black part” of the eye—gets smaller when exposed to light. This limits the amount of light that is transmitted to the back of the eye to help you focus clearly on whatever you are looking at.

In intoxicated individuals, the pupils do not constrict properly to light. This allows more light to enter the eye and blurs the quality of the image—resulting in overall light sensitivity, blur, and double vision.

The combination of sluggish pupils and sluggish extraocular muscles are a main part of why driving while intoxicated is so dangerous. Not only are your decision-making skills depressed, but your eyesight is compromised as well. You wouldn’t drive blind—so why would you drive drunk?


Why Do Police Officers Check My Vision During a DUI Check?

During a routine DUI checkpoint, police officers are looking at your eyes for two major things—to see if your pupils respond appropriately to light, and to see how your eye muscle coordination is working.

As mentioned before, drinking debilitates the central nervous system. When this occurs, the eyes muscles do not move as they should.

If the officer asks an intoxicated individual to follow a light as it is moved around, odds are he or she will not be able to do so as the muscles are in a weakened state.

Officers are also looking for something called a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus.

A nystagmus is when the eyes move uncontrollably and quickly (jerkily) in one direction. If someone has a nystagmus, it will look like their eyes are almost beating repeatedly to the right or left instead of staying stable in one position.

Eye muscle control is accomplished via multiple cranial nerves and even several different processing centers.

The ability to track a moving object is called a pursuit and is controlled by the pretectal nucleus of the brain.

The ability to make an abrupt eye movement to change focus on one target to another is called a saccade and is controlled by the superior frontal eye fields.

Normally, these systems all work together. However, when intoxicated and the central nervous system is depressed, things do not work as they should. As a result, when trying to look in a certain direction (right, left, up, or down), the eyes will not get the memo that they are supposed to be focusing on a target and will continue to jerk toward the target as an attempt to get all the muscles working together—i.e. a gaze-invoked nystagmus.

There is no way to fake these tests, which is why they are so commonly used in field sobriety stops.

Are There Any Long-Term Health Effects from Drinking Too Much Alcohol on My Eyes and Vision?

Yes, and they can be quite debilitating. The worst is optic neuropathy—or death of the optic nerve.

The optic nerve is a conglomeration of input from the photoreceptor cells of the eye (the cells responsible for detecting light) to the brain. Therefore, if the optic nerve dies, it can no longer transmit information from the eye to the brain, and we lose our vision permanently.

Simply based on the way information is located within the optic nerve, peripheral vision loss tends to be affected first. You may note “tunnel vision” or the inability to see things in the periphery of your vision. Another early sign of this disease includes colors looking dimmer or less vibrant.

Over time vision loss can extend to include central vision, and even result in complete blindness.

Optic neuropathy secondary to chronic alcohol consumption is thought to be due to nutritional depletion of thiamine (vitamin B1). Since this is a nutritional disorder, it affects both eyes equally.

Unfortunately, the optic nerve cannot regenerate. Once part of it dies, that area of your vision is lost permanently. Cessation of alcohol consumption and eating a more well-balance diet can help prevent the disease from progressing, however.

Other ways chronic alcohol over-consumption can affect your eyes include worsening dry eye symptoms, early onset cataracts, and even exacerbating age-related macular degeneration—another cause of debilitating central vision loss.


Want Help is Available for Alcohol Addiction?

While alcohol consumption can be a fun social activity, it is important to consume alcohol only in moderation as it does have many serious health complications.

Alcohol consumption can also be a slippery slope between just a drink or two, and a dependency. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction please reach out to one of your doctors.

If you need immediate help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services 24/7 hotline phone number is: 1-800-662-4357.


Dr. Anthony Spina and the staff of Premier Eye Associates specialize in glasses, soft contact lenses, hard contact lenses, and medical eye exams. Call our eye doctor in Auburn, AL today at (334) 539-5391 or schedule an appointment online  if you are interested in learning more about alcohols affects on vision.  Our optometrist provides only the highest quality eye care services amongst eye doctors in the Auburn Alabama area.


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