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Deep Dive into Water Eye Safety: Protect Your Eyes in Freshwater, Oceans and Pools

Posted on July 8th, 2021

Beach season is here! And as you take part in fun water activities this summer, it’s good to be mindful of hazards that could lead to eye infections and other health troubles. From ultraviolet radiation to natural properties in water, there are small hidden dangers that could be around your favourite lake or pool that can have a big impact on your eyes.

By taking some simple precautions and remembering some of the information we’re sharing here, you can ensure your eyes will stay healthy, whether it’s swimming, doing water sports or just relaxing in and out of the water. Remember these things the next time you grab your towel and head out!

Swimming hazards that can cause eye infections and irritation in the water

Bodies of water such as reservoirs, lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans are categorically going to be packed with small particles and bacteria that can get into your eyes and cause problems. Your eyes are designed to prevent and keep out most things that don’t belong there, but sometimes things like fungi, bacteria or sand can get in and irritate your eyes.

Did you know that there is a whole category of water-related ocular diseases? These are diseases occurring because of water exposure, and includes both infectious and non-infectious ocular diseases. Check out this chart that shows you where and what infections are most likely to happen depending on geographic location.

Here are some possible irritants by different bodies of water to give you a better idea of what to look out for:

Oceans

When daydreaming about taking a dip in the ocean, it’s not like we stop to worry about irritants like salt and bacteria. Those are, however, some of the particles you should keep in mind before diving in. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the salt in ocean water that causes the most eye health issues but different types of fungi and bacteria.

Additionally, sand and other small particles being tossed around the ocean waves pose risks, as they can irritate, lacerate, or get lodged in if they get past the eyes’ natural defences.  

Freshwater lakes, reservoirs, and rivers

Due to their locations and often calm nature, lakes and rivers can be a significant source of bacteria. Unlike the ocean—whose salt content may be enough to discourage behaviours like swimming without goggles, not rinsing properly or accidentally swallowing water—freshwater lakes and rivers are often treated in a much more relaxed way.

Much like the oceans, however, freshwater is often polluted from human use. Lakes and rivers are not always safer alternatives to oceans; they can grow different types of bacteria as well as many of the same ones.

One of the most common germs found in any water is Giardia. It is usually traced back to feces from humans and animals. Most often ingested when swallowing water that is unsanitary, and can cause some unpleasant eye complications such as inflammation of the iris, inflammation behind the retina, and retinal hemorrhages.  

Pools

As relaxing as a day in the pool can sound, chlorinated swimming pools can be some of the most infested places you can enter, boasting cryptosporidium and legionella as the most common parasites. Both in and out of the water, most pools and hot tubs are usually not properly disinfected. 

Parasites and bacteria can be found in hot tubs and pools. These can affect the gut, skin and internal organs, and of course, the eyes. There are around five species of free-living amoeba found in pools that can cause microbial keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea. Pink eye is another infection common to chlorine pools, stemming from contamination by the virus, staphylococcus bacteria, or allergic conjunctivitis.

The addition of chlorine to water may destroy some bacteria and organisms, but the chemical itself may be just as irritating to the eyes. The amount of chlorine that will be strong enough to kill parasites and bacteria comes with its own side effects and, therefore, is not often used in that proportion. Many disinfectants in pools are known to lead to developing eye health issues such as allergic conjunctivitis, burning, tearing up, photophobia, blurred vision, and dry eye.

How to minimize eye infections and irritation when in the water:

  • If clear vision underwater is required, swimming goggles may provide a protective option and are usually recommended for water activities.
  • Make sure you follow proper hygiene in and out of the water. Avoid touching your face and eyes, and wash your hands right after you exit the water. Shower well, with warm water and soap.
  • Stick to water areas you trust, and mind alert signs around water. If your eyes tend to be extra sensitive, don’t forget to bring artificial tears to give your eyes extra moisture and protection from irritants like chlorine and salt.

Reflective Rays

Protecting your eyes is a priority even when you’re not actively in the water—it applies if you’re near it, too! Always wear sunglasses to protect yourself from UV radiation and minimize the effects of the sun. Water, reflects and concentrates harmful UV rays from the sun, which can cause corneal damage, inflammation, and irritation.

Surfaces that are solid and light-coloured, like beaches or pool areas, can also double a person’s UV exposure, causing photokeratitis (a painful, temporary eye condition caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, most commonly from the sun).

Proper eyewear that blocks 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays is always recommended, especially in areas shade isn’t readily available. If you enjoy fishing or boating, consider opting for polarized lenses. They contain a special filter that blocks more glare than traditional UV lenses, allowing for safer and clearer vision. Picking a pair of UVA and UVB-blocking sunglasses is detrimental to your eye health.

Care for Contacts

Swimming with contacts is not recommended. If you need to see while swimming, try a pair of prescription goggles or sunglasses instead, as contact lenses limit oxygen access to your eye and can trap bacteria and irritants behind them, leading to cornea inflammation.

Whether you have just been swimming in a chlorinated pool or lake, handled a fish, or gassed up a boat, avoid touching your eyes until you’ve had time to wash your hands thoroughly. This will lessen the chance of contamination and irritation. If you must wear contact lenses, it is recommended to wear single-use lenses that you can immediately discard to avoid contaminants and contact lens eye infections. Don’t forget, contact lenses and tap water should not mix—never wash your lens under the tap.

If you’ve experienced any of the side effects we’ve covered after exposure to water, book an eye exam with your local FYidoctors clinic to ensure your eyes are in good health.