Grab Your Goggles: Summer Eye Safety Tips for Swimmers

Jul 05, 2022 1:15 PM

John A. Moran Eye Center

From sunburned eyes to sunscreen sting, summer can do a number on your eyes.

Most of us know that wearing 100% UV sunglasses and hats is essential to protect our vision and our skin when out in the sun.

But what about when you’re just trying to cool off by wading in a pool or lake, diving underwater, or splashing water on your face while waterskiing?

Either way, our eyes are vulnerable to eye infections because there is a world of invisible, infectious dangers lurking in lakes, rivers, and even chlorinated swimming pools.

What you need to know about swimming and eye care

Water bodies, especially lakes and rivers, are contaminated with bacteria and organisms. If you swim there, you run a greater risk of developing an eye infection. And if you open your eyes underwater without goggles, the risk is even greater.

According to Amy Lin, MD, ophthalmologist at the John A. Moran Eye Center, bacteria in water can cause a serious sight-threatening infection, often called a corneal ulcer.

“It’s basically an open wound on the transparent, protective outer layer of the eye,” Lin explains. “Not only can it cause severe pain, but it can also lead to blindness if left untreated.”

Pools sanitized with chlorine or bromine (often used in spas) can also pose risks if you open your eyes underwater.

“The various chemicals can cause redness and irritate the eye’s protective tear film,” says Linn. “The result can be blurred vision and sensitivity to light, but it’s usually temporary.”

Lin reminds swimmers that most pools are a “shared experience.”

“After long exposure to water mixed with sweat and bacteria that wash away swimmers’ bodies, disinfectant chemicals create an irritant called chloramine, which can cause pain in bloodshot eyes,” she says. “And never forget to remove contact lenses before engaging in water activities, as wearing them in the water carries an extremely high risk of vision-threatening infection.”

Although rare and in the worst cases, a parasite called Acanthamoeba found in rivers, lakes, swamps and oceans and sometimes in swimming pools and hot tubs can cause a devastating infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the condition is more common in people who wear contact lenses, but anyone can develop the infection. If doctors catch it early enough, they can treat it with prescription drugs, but more serious cases may require a corneal transplant or even lead to blindness.

How to protect your eyes when swimming

“While this may all sound a bit scary, the risks are generally low if you adhere to a few water sports best practices,” Lin says.

  • Invest in good waterproof swimming goggles to reduce contamination and irritation.
  • Gently wipe water from your eyes after exiting a body of water.
  • Hydrate your eyes with lubricating eye drops.
  • Stay well hydrated. It’s good for the whole system, including your eyes.
  • Never wear your contact lenses underwater or anywhere you will get water in your eyes. This includes steam saunas where bacteria, viruses and fungi can aerosolize (meaning they can become airborne). Infectious irritants can squeeze and stick between your contacts and your eyes and cause pain.
  • Rigid gas permeable contact lenses can easily shrink and dislodge when you’re underwater. Soft contact lenses are often porous, which makes it easier for germs to get into your eyes.

“Once you are aware of the possible risks swimming can pose to your eyes, you are one step ahead,” says Lin. “Fortunately, the precautions to avoid eye irritation, or worse, are relatively simple.”

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