Does Chlorine Cause Eye Irritation?

One of the common complaints about swimming is that pool water seems to affect people’s eyes, namely by turning them red and causing them to itch. Our assumption when it comes to irritation is usually a knee-jerk reaction like “there must be too much chlorine in the pool” when we should realize that’s an urban legend. While the irritation isn’t by any means imaginary, it’s more likely linked to swimmers’ poor hygiene in the water than to inordinately high chlorine levels.

What is eye irritation?

Conjunctivitis or “pink eye” is the inflammation of the conjunctiva—the thin layer of transparent tissue that covers the white of the eye. You may experience symptoms in one or both eyes and may result in a gritty sensation, itching, burning, or excessive eye watering. Your eyelids may swell, your eyes may turn red and become sensitive to light.

When the eye is submerged in chlorinated water, the tear film that usually acts as a shield for your cornea can be washed away, particularly if the water chemistry is off. The corneas become dehydrated and sensitivity increases.

Does chlorine cause eye irritation?

Conjunctivitis is caused by three things: infections, allergies, and exposure to chemicals. Chlorinating swimming pools is actually one of the first lines of defense against this condition because it kills harmful bacteria and anything viral that may make its way into the pool. Keeping your pool properly balanced is what the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls “the first defense against germs that can make swimmers sick.” The most important factors to keeping these bugs at bay are chlorine (or whatever sanitizer you choose) and pH. These two factors are the ones on guard duty against a wide variety of bacteria and viruses that can be introduced into pools by swimmers, not only conjunctivitis but gastrointestinal upset, swimmer’s ear, and dermal infections.

Conjunctivitis is likely to onset anyone with existing seasonal allergies. Others may have a predetermined sensitivity to some chemicals used in pool water. Wearing GOGGLES is a great way to prevent the onset of conjunctivitis for anyone with either tendency.

What does cause red eyes?

One factor in the red eye myth is linked to another pool fallacy—the idea that it’s okay to pee in the pool because the chlorine kills what’s bad in the urine. While not unusual to pee in the pool (one in five adults cop to it), it can be bad for swimmer health. Chlorine reacts to urine and other unpleasant swimmer-carried additives to the water and produces irritants in the water and in the air—particularly harmful in an indoor pool environment.

If you’re a pool owner who wants to keep an eye on your water to make sure swimmers’ eyes aren’t irritated, make sure to keep your swimming pool chemistry optimized. This means paying special attention to the pH (keeping it between 7.2-7.8) and the chlorine levels (between 1-3 ppm). Test your water FREQUENTLY—as much as before EVERY swim. This will make the water perfect both for destroying bacteria and for keeping swimmers comfortable.

Whether or not you own the pool you’re swimming in, here are a couple tips to help you do your part to keep the water clean:

  • DON’T pee in the pool. Take children on frequent potty breaks and make sure they know it’s not okay to use a public or private swimming pool as a way to relieve themselves.
  • If you have small children in the water who wear swim diapers, CHECK them frequently. If they need to be changed, make sure you use the facilities or a place far away from the water. NOT poolside.
  • ALWAYS shower before entering the pool. This will keep body oils, dirt, makeup, sweat, and fecal matter out of the water. If you expect others to do their part, you must do yours.
  • Wear GOGGLES if you have sensitive eyes. This will create a watertight barrier that will prevent water coming in contact with the eyes and resulting in conjunctivitis.
  • ENCOURAGE children to close their eyes underwater, particularly when visiting a public pool. The longer their eyes are open underwater, the more likely it is that the eye’s natural protective film is to be stripped away and that opens the door for bacteria to move in. If they want to open their eyes, make sure you heed the tip above and get them goggles.

What can you do to treat red eyes from a pool?

If you do get red and itchy eyes, the American Optometric Association suggests flushing the eyes thoroughly with warm water or a saline solution to aid in removing irritants from the surface of the eye. This is known to relieve the symptoms of chemical conjunctivitis brought on by irritants in the swimming pool. You can also use a cold compress to counteract inflammation and irritation. Over-the-counter lubricating eye drops can eyes itching and burning sensations in the eye. If you wear contacts, discontinue use for a few days until all of the itching irritation has gone.

If the symptoms lasts for more than a few hours after swimming or does not respond to at-home remedies, you might want to see an eye doctor.

If you follow simple rules to keep the water hygienic (test your water frequently at home, do your part by not bringing anything unhygienic, and play smart in the water), you shouldn’t have a problem having swims that won’t make you uncomfortable after getting out of the water. Healthy swimming is a joint effort between pool managers and swimmers. Be sure to do your part!

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