The cool refreshing sensation and health benefits of plunging into a swimming pool can be somewhat thwarted by a sensation of itchy and reddening eyes. For a long time chlorine has been quickly accused as the sole culprit of this discomfort, but this is not totally true. As revealed in a 2015 CDC study, swimming and red eyes have a much more surprising (and pretty disgusting!) origin than that.


The cause of red eyes

Swimming pool chlorine works as a disinfectant – killing bacteria and preventing the growth of algae- but also combines with contaminants released by the swimmers themselves e.g. urine and sweat. This combination creates chemical compounds called chloramines, which in turn irritate the eyes of swimmers and gives swimming pools their unique aroma.

Children are more likely to pee in the swimming pool than adults, and are also likely to swim at peak times with other children. Furthermore, they either do not own goggles, or are likely to remove their goggles when playing or swimming underwater. As a result of this, children are particularly susceptible to red and itchy eyes when swimming.

However, there are a range of other factors that may be the cause of red eyes when swimming. For example, water damage to contact lenses or, in rare cases, bacteria and viruses entering and infecting the eye as a result of poor pool hygiene maintenance.



How to treat red and itchy eyes

The cause of red eyes is normally short-lived and easily treatable with a few simple steps:

  • Remove your contact lenses (if wearing them)
  • Rinse eyes thoroughly with fresh water
  • Use saline eye-drops


Although if symptoms persist, please contact a doctor.


Red eye prevention

The best treatment is, however, prevention, which is all too easy!

1. Chiefly, this is by wearing swim goggles, which not only keep irritants out of your eyes, but also provide you with crystal clear vision underwater. What’s not to love?!

2. Shower before and after you swim. This primarily prevents contaminants getting in the water, but also prevents them hitchhiking home with you…

3. Do not pee in the pool! And encourage children not to do so (the tell-tale story of ‘your pee changes colour underwater’ is usually successfully off-putting) and remind them to go to the loo before they swim.

4. If you are a swimming pool owner or manager, ensure the water is at the appropriate chemical composition (e.g. chlorine concentration and pH) and safe to use. Happy water = happy swimmers.


Are there long term effects of red eyes?

Whilst the short-term effects of direct exposure to swimming pool water can cause irritated red eyes, the long-term effects are much more ambiguous. A 2008 study suggested prolonged exposure can damage the outmost layer of the eye (the corneal epithelium) but there is relatively little real-life evidence to support this. This is to be expected though, as those who typically spend extensive periods of time in chlorinated water (such as Olympian Sharron Davies) typically wear goggles to prevent this occurring in the first place!


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