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The Reasons Your Eyes Sting When You Swim

If you’ve ever swam with your eyes open underwater, you might have noticed that they turn red and develop a burning sensation after a little while.

Many people assume that this problem is an effect of the chemicals or salt in the water. While these could certainly be contributing factors, the reality of the cause might be more disturbing than you’d expect.

No more protective layer

When you open your eyes in a chlorinated pool, the chemicals could wash away the natural tear film your eyes produce to keep them moist and clear. Without this layer of protection, your eyes become vulnerable to the bacteria in the water, which can cause irritation and, in some scenarios, infection.

Exposure to infection

In any body of water—whether it’s a pool, the ocean, or a lake—your eyes are vulnerable to surviving viruses and microbes including acanthamoeba and pseudomonas.

It’s become somewhat of an expectation that we will be exposed to a certain amount of urine in public swimming pools. In chlorinated pools, the chemicals react with the human excretions in the water, producing irritants known as chloramines. It’s these chloramines that produce the smell we so often associate with pools, and also the cause of your stinging red eyes. So, if a pool has a strong chemical smell, it doesn’t mean that it’s extra clean. In fact, it can be the opposite: the stronger the smell, the higher the concentration of chloramines—which means the water is potentially swimming with bacteria.

If you are going swimming, make sure you choose where you spend your time carefully! A study in 2010 found that 1 in 8 public pools had to be closed immediately after they were inspected due to serious code violations that posed a threat to users’ health.

What does this mean for your eyes? No matter where you swim, you’re exposing your eyes to a variety of irritants and microbes that could be a health risk. For example, the most common eye infection that is contracted from exposure in pools is conjunctivitis—more commonly known as “pink eye”. There are a few different causes of pink eye that could be linked with your swimming adventure, including both the chlorine and microbes in the water.

Contact lenses can trap bacteria

If you wear contact lenses, it is highly recommended that you remove them before going swimming, wear goggles over top of the contact lenses, or at least clean your contacts immediately after leaving the water. Your risk of developing infections is increased if you wear contacts underwater—germs could get trapped between the lens and your eye and may get absorbed into the lens unless they are properly disinfected. This exposure could lead to various conditions, including keratitis—an inflammation of the cornea that. In more rare and extreme cases on different infections, you could actually develop conditions, such as a corneal ulcer, that could lead to vision loss.

Take steps towards prevention

To avoid contracting conjunctivitis or other types of eye infection—whether it’s from chemicals or other naturally occurring microbes where you’re swimming—there are a few things you can do:


To read more about how to protect your eyes when swimming, check out this blog.

If you have concerns about your eye health, consider making an appointment at your local FYidoctors today.