What You Should Know About Swimming and Your Eyes

This Article Was Written By Dr. Barbara Evans, A Board-Certified Ophthalmologist In Des Moines

Whether you enjoy a leisurely swim at your community pool or compete in the 2021 Summer Olympics, you may be familiar with the stinging, burning and redness of “swimmer’s eye.” While swimming is a great form of exercise and a relaxing way to cool down, it can be hard on your eyes. Dr. Barbara Evans, an ophthalmologist in Des Moines, IA, has over 29 years of experience caring for people’s eye health.

Pools are Tough on the Tear Film

A thin layer of tears called the tear film coats the surface of our eyes. This tear film keeps our eyes moist, smooth and clear. Chlorine and other chemicals used to keep pool water clean can wash away the moist layer of tear film, leaving eyes uncomfortable and red.

People who swim frequently may develop dry eyes where they do not produce enough tears or the right quality of tears to keep the cornea smooth. They can experience stinging, burning, or blurry vision.

Without the protection of a fully functioning tear film, eyes are exposed to harmful pool chemicals and lingering bacteria. Chlorine itself can cause a reaction, leaving your eyes red, itchy, watery and uncomfortable. Bacteria that survive the chlorine can lead to an eye infection, such as pink eye (conjunctivitis).

Dr. Barbara Evans Recommends the Following Steps to Protect Your Eyes While Enjoying the Pool This Summer

1. Wear Goggles

Wear a pair of swim goggles every time you swim. Goggles keep pool chemicals out of your eyes, helping to keep your tear film healthy. It is best to buy goggles that cover your eyes but sit on the bone surrounding your eyes to avoid placing pressure directly upon the eye.

Studies suggest that small, tight-fitting goggles can raise the pressure in your eye (intraocular pressure) to unhealthy levels. In one study, wearing goggles raised the swimmers’ pressures by an average of 4.5 points; however, one of the types of goggles used in this study caused an increase of 13 points!

Average intraocular pressure is between 10 and 21. If the pressure remains above 21 for prolonged periods of time, irreversible damage to the optic nerve called glaucoma can result. This is not to suggest that using goggles while swimming can cause glaucoma, but if you are a serious swimmer, it is in your best interest to use larger goggles that do not press too hard directly on the eye. For more information on this study, you can read the article here.

2. Wash Your Eyes

Splash your closed eyes with fresh water immediately after swimming. This washes chlorine and other chemicals off your eyelids and eyelashes.

3. Use Eye Drops

Use over-the-counter artificial tears before and after swimming to keep the tear film balanced and eyes comfortable. Artificial tears can also be used to help irrigate chlorine and other chemicals from the eye after swimming. Got dry eye? Help protect your tear film by putting in thicker artificial tears—called gel tears—before putting on your goggles.

4. Stay Hydrated

Don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Staying well hydrated is an important part of keeping your eyes moist and comfortable.

Beware of swimming with contact lenses!

Wearing contact lenses in any type of water—including a pool, hot tub, ocean or lake—puts you at high risk for a corneal infection. Bacteria can grow on the lenses even after just one swim. Because contact lenses sit in the eyes for an extended period of time, your eyes are continuously exposed to chemicals, bacteria, fungi or parasites. That can lead to a painful infection, corneal damage, and even loss of vision.

When swimming, skip the contacts altogether! You can get prescription swimming goggles to help keep your vision clear and eyes healthy in the pool. Make an appointment with Dr. Barbara Evans to learn more about the different kinds of swim goggles available and treatments for dry eye disease.

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Schedule Appointment With Barbara E. Evans, M.D.

Barbara E. Evans, M.D. has been an ophthalmologist for 29+ years. She provides comprehensive eye care for your entire family. From performing eye exams for routine vision care as well as ocular medical conditions, Barbara E. Evans is committed to exceeding all of your expectations! Please call 515-225-2566 to request an appointment with Dr. Evans.