Irritated eyes when swimming

Health Advisor
Ask Felicity

18 August 2015

Why does swimming cause irritated eyes?

Your eyes are very sensitive, so any irritants in the water are bound to cause you problems. Swimming pools are kept clean with chlorine, and it is often this chemical which gets the blame for causing eye irritation, a somewhat misplaced blame as it turns out!

Chlorine is in the swimming pool to disinfect the water, keeping bacteria at bay and making the pool safe for swimming. When the chlorine encounters any bacteria, cosmetics or any other organic matter, it goes into attack mode. In the process of fighting off potential hazards, it produces chloramines, and it is these chemical elements that give your eyes problems.

As chloramines levels increase, chlorine levels decrease so, anti-intuitively perhaps, increasing levels of chlorine will help to prevent eye problems by balancing out the chloramines.

The other common disinfectant is salt, occurring naturally in the sea. Saltwater swimming pools are also becoming more and more popular. This is often seen to irritate the eyes less than chlorine, but this is not to say that eye irritation cannot occur.

What can I do to ease the irritation?

While eye irritation from swimming tends to ease of its own accord, there are many home remedies you can try to speed up this process, making you feel more comfortable more quickly.

Removing the irritant as soon as possible gives your eyes the best chance of a swift recovery.

  • Flush away the irritant – bathe your eyes in fresh water or slowly pour water from a cup into your eyes to remove the irritant. While this may not provide immediate relief, it is an important step as your eyes will be red and sore as long as the irritant is in them. Warm water may feel more comfortable, while cold water can help to reduce inflammation.
  • Milk – while there is no scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of this technique, dropping a little milk into your eyes can neutralise the effects of chemicals. This can help to ease the pain.
  • Contact lenses – wearing contact lenses when your eyes are still feeling red and tender is going to exacerbate the problem. Wait until your eyes are feeling fine before putting your lenses in, or it will feel as if the redness will never disappear.
  • Eye drops – these are a quick and easy way of flushing out any remaining irritation as well as re-moisturising your eyes, making them feel comfortable again. Herbal eye drops, such as A.Vogel’s Eye Drops containing Euphrasia can be a good option as they are natural, so will not cause further irritation.
  • Cold compress – if your eyes are feeling particularly red or swollen, a cold compress could ease your symptoms. Try soaking a flannel with cold water and laying it over your eyes. A wet teabag or slices of cucumber will work well too. This will reduce the blood flow to your eyes, reducing inflammation. Just don’t try driving at the same time…

Can I prevent irritated eyes?

We’ve heard it all before – prevention is better than cure – but there is a lot of truth in these words.

You need not be faced with itchy red and swollen eyes on your exit from the water if you try a few simple tips, and even if you can’t completely eliminate the problem, there are certainly steps you can put in place to reduce the effects.

  • Clean water – if the water you are swimming in isn’t full of bacteria, then the chances of your eyes suffering from irritation are greatly reduced. Try to avoid swimming pools with a strong chemical smell, and if you are swimming in the sea, rivers or lakes, only swim in areas that are deemed safe for swimming. If you see a ‘No Swimming’ sign, there is usually a good reason for it, and one that you probably don’t want to find out after it’s too late.
  • Eye drops – just as eye drops are good to help your eyes recover after swimming, they also work well as a good preventative measure, giving your eyes a protective layer of moisture against irritants.
  • Close your eyes – while I have never perfected the art of keeping my eyes closed while my head is under the water, I know people who testify that this saves them all the bother of red eyes. Indeed, if the irritants never touch your eyes, they can’t irritate them. Also, another tip which admittedly I have never got the hang of but know people who swear by it, is simply to keep your head out of the water when you swim.
  • Goggles – as with closing your eyes underwater, keeping the irritants out of your eyes altogether will save you a whole load of problems. Goggles give you the chance to keep your eyes open when underwater so you can see where you are going. Just make sure they fit correctly so that they don’t leak or you are back to square one.

And if the irritation doesn’t go away?

Red eyes caused by swimming should ease within a few hours. If it doesn’t, it may be that you have some kind of an infection which has been exacerbated by swimming. Signs of infection are irritation or redness in one eye rather than both, clouding of vision or pus like discharge. If you experience symptoms of this kind, then you should get your eyes check by a medical professional.

A quick note about contact lenses

Those of us whose vision is not up to scratch have further problems with eyes and swimming. Not being able to see where you are going can be a real nuisance making many of us tempted to wear contact lenses in the water – not the best plan. Lenses can become damaged, torn, dislodged and lost. Don’t be tempted either to wear goggles over contact lenses, as the suction which stops goggles from leaking can dislodge your lenses.

The best thing that I have discovered recently, and wish I’d had a long time ago, are prescription goggles. Available from the optician, these goggles are custom made for your eyesight, keep your eyes from becoming irritated, and stop you from unwittingly crashing into fellow swimmers.

A.Vogel Moisturising Eye Drops with Euphrasia & Hyaluronic acid for dry and irritated eyes, 10ml


£ 10.50

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Eye drops. Help for dry, irritated, tired eyes.
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