When you think about swimming pool safety, protecting your eyes may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But spending time in the pool and in the sun can cause trouble for your eyesight and eye comfort.
What is “swimmer’s eye”?
This is the eye irritation that can follow a day of fun in the pool. You might feel it as stinging, burning, itchiness, and redness.
But why is playing in the water so tough on the eyes? The chlorine that keeps the pool water clean actually messes with the eye’s natural tear production. We have a tear film coating the surface of our eyes, keeping our eyes moist and clear. But chlorine actually washes away that film, which is why pool time often leads to dry eyes.
Chlorine is only part of the problem. Exposure to chlorine and chloramines can cause an eye infection called chemical conjunctivitis (pink eye caused by chemical irritants). Chloramines are chemicals that are formed when chlorine binds to the bodily fluids people bring into the pool. Nope — it’s not pleasant, and neither are the effects on our eyes if we expose them to those chemicals.
Even with the presence of chlorine, certain bacteria can linger and enter the eye, leading to bacterial conjunctivitis.
Protecting your eyes from pool water
So how can you protect your eyes from swimmer’s eye, and what should you do if you or your child has eye problems after spending time in the pool?
First, always wear swim goggles. Our tear film is designed to protect our eyes, but swim goggles help provide an additional layer of protection when our natural protection can be compromised.
Next, don’t wear contact lenses in the pool. Contact lenses can act as traps for bacteria, which then sit on your eyes, and this risk is even greater when you’re in a pool, hot tub, or even the ocean or a lake. Ask your eye doctor about prescription swimming goggles and wear those to prevent the corneal infection that can result from wearing contacts in water.
Sport your sunglasses whenever you’re poolside. Protect your eyes from the UV rays that reflect off the water by using sunglasses. Look for sunglasses that are labeled “100% protection against UVA and UVB,” or “100% protection against UV 400.” Sunburned eyes plus swimmer’s eye make for a miserable combination.
Splash your eyes with fresh water after swimming. This will help rinse the chlorine and chloramine off your eyelashes and eyelids.
Use soothing eye drops. You can use over-the-counter eye drops or tear gel before and after swimming to protect your eyes and help them to feel more comfortable.
Place a cold compress over your eyes. If your eyes do feel irritated, a compress applied intermittently can reduce redness and inflammation, make your eyes more comfortable and encourage tears to form.
When to see your eye doctor
If the redness and pain don’t decrease, or if you have blurred vision, swelling, discharge, or sensitivity to light, make an appointment with your eye doctor so he or she can rule out infection.
Need prescription swim goggles or sunglasses for you or your pool-loving kiddos? Make an appointment to see your eye doctor to learn about your options.