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Is it bad to open your eyes in the pool?

Pink eye irritation from chlorine

Why you shouldn’t open your eyes in the pool

Swimming can be fun, refreshing and good exercise. But if you’re going underwater, it’s important to protect your eyes by wearing goggles or keeping your eyes closed. Chemicals, bacteria and viruses in the water can irritate and even infect your eyes. 

Chlorine is often used as a pool sanitizer. It is an effective chemical for killing most germs and other contaminants that make the pool dirty. Because chlorine is a chemical, it can mix with other elements and cause eye issues if the pool isn’t regularly cleaned and maintained.

Unfortunately, swimmers can bring sweat, dirt, fecal matter and urine into the pool. All of these can mix with chlorine to form chloramines. Some products, like deodorant and makeup, can also mix to create these chloramines. 

How do chloramines affect your health?

Chloramines are chemical irritants. Coming into contact with chloramines, or even breathing them in, can cause the following symptoms:

  • Irritation of the nose and lungs, which can lead to coughing and wheezing

  • Asthma attacks (if asthmatic)

  • Itchy, red eyes

  • Rashes and skin irritation

Due to the chemical process that produces chloramines, a pool’s chlorine level lowers as more chloramines are created. With less chlorine to sanitize it, a pool will have a higher amount of germs and other contaminants in it. 

A quick sniff can tell you if there are too many chloramines around. A clean pool shouldn’t have a strong chemical or chlorine smell. If it does, then the pool probably produced chloramines that have turned into gas.

To prevent the creation of chloramines, you should:

  • Test chlorine concentration at least twice a day if you own a pool

  • Never swim if you are sick, especially if you have diarrhea

  • Never urinate or pass solid waste in the pool

  • Use the restroom before swimming

  • Shower for at least a minute before swimming 

Pool chemicals don’t need to turn into chloramines to be harmful. Chlorine alone can wash away part of the eye’s tear film. This can lead to red, irritated eyes, a condition commonly called swimmer’s eye. 

A damaged tear film also makes the eyes more vulnerable to damage from pool chemicals and waterborne germs. This leads to a higher risk of eye infection from the bacteria that aren’t killed by the pool’s chlorine. 

What is swimmer’s eye?

Swimmer’s eye is a type of chemical conjunctivitis (pink eye), usually caused by chlorine from the pool. Chemical conjunctivitis is a non-contagious form of pink eye caused when chemical irritants harm the eye. Swimmer’s eye is relatively mild compared to other types of chemical conjunctivitis.

Adenoviral conjunctivitis, also called pharyngoconjunctival fever or PCF, is another type of pink eye that can be contracted through pool water. PCF is an infectious disease seen predominantly in children. It is caused by adenoviruses, which are viruses that can be transmitted through water.

PCF often affects one eye one to three days before the other eye. Symptoms — such as fever, sore throat, red and itchy eyes — usually don’t appear until a few days after PCF is contracted. PCF is highly contagious for one to two weeks after the onset of symptoms. Most cases of PCF are mild, but the syndrome can become chronic.

Even in a carefully tended pool, chlorine may not kill all the bacteria and viruses that make it into the water. If you experience any eye pain or prolonged symptoms after swimming, contact your eye doctor.

READ MORE: Why you should avoid swimming with pink eye

Symptoms of chlorine in the eyes

Even if a pool is well-maintained and chloramines are not present, opening your eyes underwater in a chlorinated pool may lead to:

If you swim often, it’s also possible to develop dry eye, which can leave your tear film unstable and prevent your eyes from properly making tears. It can lead to blurry vision, a gritty feeling in your eyes, soreness and other symptoms.

READ MORE: Why does it feel like something is in my eye?

How to treat swimmer’s eye

Swimmer’s eye is caused by chlorine or other pool chemicals damaging your tear film and drying out your eyes.

To help relieve mild redness and irritation at home, you can:

  • Flush your eyes with cool, clean water or sterile eye wash.

  • Apply warm compresses.

  • Apply lubricating eye drops and topical creams to soothe irritation.

Make an appointment with your eye doctor if you have prolonged symptoms following a trip to the pool, especially if you start to experience eye pain, discharge, swelling or vision issues. 

How long does swimmer’s eye last?

The redness and irritation typically associated with swimmer’s eye should last no longer than a few hours after a swim. If your symptoms continue beyond that time, and they don’t respond to home treatment, contact your eye doctor.

How to prevent swimmer’s eye

Swimmer’s eye shouldn’t stop you from going to the pool, but it is something to keep in mind when getting ready. Here are some things you can do to prevent swimmer’s eye:

  • Wear goggles when swimming.

  • Don’t wear contacts when you swim.

  • Avoid (or at least be cautious of) pools that have a strong chemical smell.

  • Use lubricating eye drops before and after you swim.

  • Wash your closed eyes with splashes of clean water or sterile eye wash after swimming.

  • Stay hydrated.

Swimmer’s eye is a nuisance that can often be avoided. So, next time you go to the pool, protect your eyes by wearing swim goggles and following the other prevention tips above. 

READ NEXT: Should you open your eyes underwater?

What you should know about swimming and your eyes. American Academy of Ophthalmology. August 2016.

Facts about tears. American Academy of Ophthalmology. December 2016.

Red eyes and swimming. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 2022.

How does chlorine affect your eyes? Cleveland Clinic. April 2021

Acanthamoeba. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 2021.

Acanthamoeba keratitis. Cleveland Clinic. May 2021.

Eye irritation due to swimming. LIVESTRONG.com. August 2019.

Chemical pink eye (conjunctivitis). HealthLink BC. July 2021.

Pharyngoconjunctival fever (PCF). Medscape. April 2021.

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