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The eyes have a natural layer of tears to protect against infection by bacteria and other contaminants. (Learn More) Because this layer can be easily disrupted when swimming, it is a good idea to always wear swimming goggles when going into the water. (Learn more)
Swimmers can also care for their eyes by using artificial tears or saline drops. (Learn More) If you wear contact lenses, do not wear them in the water. (Learn More) It is best to swim only in familiar or safe locations. (Learn More)
Eye Issues With Swimming
When people go swimming, it is not uncommon to feel some sensation of burning or stinging in their eyes. This can happen in the sea, a freshwater lake, or a chlorinated pool.
Swimming is widely known as a good form of exercise, and a popular way to have fun, but eye care for swimmers is very important. It is often overlooked.
The Tear Film
To understand how important it is to protect the eyes during swimming, it’s necessary to understand how water can affect the eyes.
To start with, there is a thin film of tears that covers the surface of the eyes, which keeps the eyes clear, smooth, and moist. This helps the eyes see clearly by focusing light, and it also protects the eyes from infections, dirt, dust, and other irritants.
Without the tear film, the eyes would dry out very quickly. Blinking would be very painful, and there would be the constant sensation of something physically on the surface of the eyes. The eyes would also become very sensitive to light.
Chlorine and other chemicals that are used to clean swimming pools can wash away the tear film, which is why swimmers can experience stinging in their eyes. This is also why their eyes look red after some time in the water.
For this reason, frequent swimmers often develop dry eyes. The body cannot adequately replenish the tear film.
The tear film’s function is to protect the eye. Without that, the eyes will be exposed to any bacteria or chemicals in the water. Swimming-related conjunctivitis happens when the bacteria that causes conjunctivitis come into contact with an unprotected eye.
What can people do to care for their eyes while they swim? The easiest answer is to always wear swim goggles every time they go in the water.
Goggles protect the tear film by keeping pool chemicals away from the eyes. If you’re used to wearing prescription lenses, you can talk to a doctor about getting prescription goggles to better enjoy your swim.
Swim goggles are specialized items, so they should be properly looked after. After each use, they should be rinsed with fresh water.
Be careful not to touch or wipe the inside of the lens because the lenses have anti-fogging coating. Instead of wiping the goggles, allow them to airdry by themselves. Don’t put the goggles in a closed container while they are wet. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
Even if using eye goggles, it’s important is to wash your eyes immediately upon leaving the water. Fresh water will disperse chlorine, chemicals, and bacteria that may be lingering on your face in the water droplets from the body of water you were just in.
Lubrication & Hydration
For further protection, some people like to use over-the-counter lubricating eye drops, which are applied before and after swimming. This ensures that the tear film is protected going into the water and then replenished after coming out of the water.
Also, staying hydrated — drinking water before you swim and even while swimming — will help immensely. Swimming can be a very physical activity. Drinking water will continue to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to keep the tear ducts producing enough moisture to lubricate your eyes.
What if you wear contact lenses during swimming? This is generally a bad idea. Wearing contact lenses in any kind of water (everything from a swimming pool or hot tub to a lake or the ocean) will not protect your eyes.
A single swimming session can expose your contact lenses to bacteria, which will continue to grow on the surface of your lenses even after you leave the water. Because the contact lenses can be on your eyes for hours after swimming, your eyes will be continually exposed to chemicals, bacteria, fungi, or even urine or parasites with every blink.
This can cause numerous infections, damage the cornea, and even result in loss of vision. If you wear contacts, take them out before you go swimming. Get prescription swimming goggles to help you see while you’re underwater and to keep your eyes safe from microscopic contaminants.
Additionally, the water can physically damage your contact lenses, folding them, changing their shape, tearing them, or even dislodging them and washing them away. A good pair of goggles will allow you to keep your contacts in, allowing you to see underwater. However, a safer practice might be to remove your contacts altogether.
For people who wear two-week or monthly lenses while they go swimming, there is an extra level of risk. The longer they wear lenses after going in the water, the greater the chances of their eyes becoming infected because of bacteria that’s had plenty of time to grow on their eyes.
Is chlorine or saltwater more dangerous for your eyes? Of the two, saltwater is less harmful on your skin, your hair, and your eyes. While the chlorine in pools sanitizes the water there and kills bacteria, the chlorine also creates chemical compounds that can irritate the eyes.
Swimming in saltwater is generally better for the eyes than swimming in chlorine, but goggles should be a standard part of swimming gear for any environment.
Why does swimming turn the eyes red? This is the result of blood vessels near the surface of the eye becoming enlarged and dilated, usually from exposure to irritants or chemicals (which are always found in water, no matter the source). This is also why many people experience a stinging sensation in their eyes after they swim, especially if they do not wear goggles.
This can affect vision, by making everything look blurry. After your swim, rinse your eyes with cool, fresh water, or use a saline drip, to wash away any irritants that might have come into contact with your eyes. Don’t do anything strenuous or intensive with your eyes, and your vision will return to normal in short order.
Another benefit of using artificial tears to clean your eyes out after swimming is that they restore the natural pH to the eyes.
Using tap water to rinse out your eyes after swimming should only be considered if there is no other option available. Tap water can also house bacteria. This is why contact lenses should never be stored in tap water.
To further care for your eyes while swimming, protect your eyes even when you’re not actually in the water. If you’re swimming during the summer, wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and also from the rays bouncing off highly reflective water in a pool or lake.
Swim Where You Know
Avoid swimming in areas you do not know and trust. While this is a good swimming safety practice in general, it means you reduce the risk of swimming in a spot that may have unknown chemicals or contaminants in the water, including urine or fecal matter. Swimming in places where you’re generally aware of the water content cuts down on the chances that you may expose your eyes to something dangerous.
An example of a contaminant that can infect the eyes when swimming without adequate protection is Acanthamoeba keratitis, which is a microbe commonly found in lakes and oceans. If it gets into the eye, it can cause vision loss and even blindness if treatment is not quickly obtained.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that recreational water illnesses, which arise due to contact with contaminants in pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans, are largely due to swimming in bodies of water that have not been chlorinated.
The Environmental Protection Agency has reports and updates on its website about the water quality at public beaches and swimming spots. State and local park services will also offer similar information about approved swimming locations.
When it comes to swimming pools (either public or private), it is important to know how much chlorine is used to keep the water clean. Keeping the pH level balanced is necessary to let the chlorine do its job in killing bacteria, but not saturating the water to the point where it irritates the skin and eyes.
If the water looks cloudy, slimy, discolored, or otherwise not clear, it is probably not safe to swim in. It is certainly not safe to swim in if you do not have eye or skin protection.
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Swimmer's Asthma: The Serious Health Problem With Chlorinated Pools. (December 2003). National Sports Medicine Institute.
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What Happens if pH Is Too High in a Pool? (July 2019). HGTV.