Q: How does alcohol intoxication cause “glassy” eyes? Does this phenomenon pose a long-term risk to eye health?—Charlie, Fairbanks, Alaska
A: While moderate wine consumption has been linked to a range of health benefits, even occasional overindulgence can have some unpleasant consequences. Glassy or glossy eyes—eyes that look glazed over, shiny and unfocused—are often associated with chronic alcohol abuse, but they can also temporarily result from an isolated instance of heavy drinking.
Dr. Carl Regillo, chief of the retina service at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, explained that “alcohol has sedative properties, and excessive consumption to the level of intoxication will suppress central nervous system function, including blinking. Impaired blinking results in dryness of the surface of the eye from tear film evaporation, [as well as] secondary redness and a glassy appearance.” Dr. Sumitra Khandelwal, associate professor of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine, compares having glassy eyes to waking up with dry mouth after a night of heavy drinking.
Dry eye from occasional intoxication is usually temporary, though Dr. Regillo warns that “chronic dry eye can affect the health of the eye [and cause] symptoms of irritation and foreign body sensation.” When severe, dry eye “can also impair vision by affecting the clarity of the cornea.” Dr. Khandelwal adds that in cases of chronic dry eye, “there are some eye drops to reduce [the glassy] appearance, but in general we recommend reduction in alcohol consumption.”
Are there any eye-specific benefits of moderate wine consumption? Dr. Khandelwal says that while “the health aspects of wine are always debated … there have been several studies showing improved eye health in patients who undergo mild to moderate red wine intake.” These improvements include “reduced cataracts and protection from macular degeneration” and may be thanks to the antioxidants and polyphenols found in red wine.
Dr. Khandelwal warns that these potential benefits to eye health should be balanced “against the risks of moderate to heavy wine drinking such as dry eye, [potential] addiction and falls.” As always, talk to your doctor about incorporating alcohol into a healthy lifestyle.—Kenny Martin