From sunburned eyes to the sting of sunscreen, summertime can do a number on your eyes.
Most of us know it's essential to wear 100% UV protection sunglasses and hats to protect our vision and skin when we're out in the sun.
But what about when you're simply trying to cool off while splashing in a pool or lake, diving underwater, or getting your face sprayed with water while waterskiing?
In all cases, our eyes are vulnerable to eye infections because there's a world of invisible, infection-causing dangers lurking in lakes, rivers, and even chlorinated swimming pools.
What You Need to Know about Swimming and Eye Care
Bodies of water—especially lakes and rivers—are contaminated with bacteria and organisms. If you swim in them, you're at a greater risk of developing an eye infection. And if you open your eyes underwater without goggles, the risk is even greater.
According to John A. Moran Eye Center ophthalmologist Amy Lin, MD, bacteria in water can cause a serious sight-threatening infection, often called a corneal ulcer.
"It's basically an open sore on the eye's clear, protective outer layer," says Lin. "Not only can it cause severe pain, but it can also lead to blindness if not treated."
Pools disinfected with chlorine or bromine (often used in hot tubs) can also present hazards if you open your eyes underwater.
"The various chemicals can cause redness and irritate the eye's protective tear film," says Lin. "The result may be blurred vision and light sensitivity, but it's typically temporary."
Lin reminds swimmers that most pools are a "shared experience."
"After long exposure to water mixed with the sweat and bacteria that wash off swimmers' bodies, the disinfecting chemicals create an irritant called chloramine, which can cause painful bloodshot eyes," she says. "And always remember to remove contact lenses before you engage in any water activities because wearing them in water introduces an extremely high risk of vision-threatening infection."
Although rare and a worst-case-scenario, a parasite called Acanthamoeba found in rivers, lakes, marshes, and oceans and sometimes in pools and hot tubs can cause a devastating infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the condition is most 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 medications, but more severe cases may require a corneal transplant or even lead to blindness.
How to Protect Your Eyes when Swimming
"While all of this may sound a bit scary, risks are generally low if you adhere to a few best-water-sports-practices," says Lin.
- Invest in some good, water-tight swim goggles to reduce contamination and irritation.
- Gently wipe water from your eyes after getting out of a body of water.
- Moisturize your eyes with lubricating eye drops.
- Stay well-hydrated. It's good for the entire system, including your eyes.
- Never wear your contact lenses underwater—or anywhere you'll get water in your eyes. This includes steam saunas where bacteria, viruses, and fungi can aerosolize (meaning they may be suspended in the air). Infection-causing irritants can sneak in and stick between your contacts and your eye and cause pain.
- Rigid gas-permeable contact lenses can easily shrink and become dislodged when you're underwater. Soft contact lenses are often porous, making it easier for microbes to enter your eyes.
"Once you're aware of the possible risks swimming can present to your eyes, you're ahead of the game," says Lin. "Thankfully, the precautions to avoid eye irritation—or worse—are relatively simple."