As summer draws near and the temperature heats up, many people will begin heading to pools to cool off. Nothing is more refreshing than a leisurely dip into a cool pool on a hot summer day. But the consequence can be stinging, red eyes, especially in an indoor pool or a pool with a higher level of chlorine.
Why does the pool water affect our eyes? What can be done about irritated eyes?
There are several reasons why pool water can have a negative effect on our eyes. First, the water strips away the tear film that coats our eyeballs and protects it from germs. When that tear film is gone, germs can enter the eye and cause an infection in the eye, or conjunctivitis. In fact, the spread of conjunctivitis from pool usage is more common than one may think. Even in chemically treated water, the chlorine does not kill all the germs, nor does it kill germs instantly, so they can still be transferred from person to person.
Second, the chlorine in pools interacts with organic compounds in the water (such as what comes off of swimmers) and creates new compounds, known as chloramines, which act as irritants. These chloramines also enter the air and are the source of the familiar “pool smell.” For swimmers, once the tear film is gone, the chloramines can enter the eyes and cause stinging, blurry vision, and red eyes. They also can irritate the skin, and they can irritate the lungs when they are airborne, such as at an indoor pool.
Saltwater pools can also be irritating to eyes, since the salt is turned into chlorine by a generator. However, some swimmers say that saltwater pools do prove to be gentler on eyes and skin than traditional chlorine pools. The best thing to do, whether you are swimming in a chlorine pool or saltwater pool (or swimming anywhere), is to wear goggles. Goggles will protect your eyes from germs, from bugs, from chemical irritants, and from the water removing your tear film. Also, if you wear contacts, you should remove them when swimming because algae and germs can get stuck between the contact lens and your eyeball, causing infection. Again, goggles will provide the best protection against infection, but remove contact lenses anyway.
Finally, if your eyes do get irritated, flush them with saline eyedrops or with tap water. If signs of an infection start to appear or the irritation does not go away within a day, you ought to see your eye doctor.