Pools, Lakes, Sprinklers: When Are They Dangerous for Your Eyes?

How to prevent eye irritation and infections

Pools, lakes, water parks and sprinklers are all great for keeping you cool when the weather heats up. But is this extra time in the water hard on your eyes? Should you worry about chlorine and contaminants causing eye irritation or infection?

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Here’s what you need to know about keeping your eyes safe and healthy in the different types of water they may encounter.

Chlorinated water in pools

The point of using chlorine is to keep pools and water parks as clean and safe as possible. For the most part, this product does its job. But because it’s a chemical, it can cause a reaction on the eye’s surface.

Chlorine can make your eyes a little red, teary and sensitive to light for a couple of hours after you are in a pool or playing at a water park. Wearing swimming goggles decreases exposure to the chemical. The best way to ease the pain is to flush your eyes with cool, clean water or a saline solution.

If the problem persists for longer than a few hours, there’s likely something more serious going on.

Chlorine kills most harmful things in the water, but not everything. Some viruses (including adenovirus, or pink eye) and bacteria may survive in chlorinated water and can cause an infection.

Bacteria and viruses are more likely to cause problems if you already have a cut or irritation in your eyes when you enter the water. Contact lenses, for instance, can irritate the eye’s surface, making it more likely to get infected.

Tip: If you’ve had eye surgery, stay out of pools — or avoid putting your head under water — for at least two weeks after surgery.

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Fresh water in lakes and ponds

Unlike chlorinated water, fresh water in lakes and ponds can contain bacteria and other organisms including acanthamoeba. This organism causes a rare infection that is difficult to treat. It is also prevalent in well water.

This condition (acanthamoeba keratitis) occurs more frequently in contact lens wearers. The infection enters the eye when it comes in contact with irritation or a cut. You can also spread it when you touch your eyes with infected water on your hands.

Again, contact lens wearers are more susceptible because of eye irritation and frequent hand/eye contact.

Tip: The best way to avoid this type of infection if you use well water is to make sure your hands are completely dry before putting your contacts in.

Acanthamoeba keratitis is treatable with prescription eye medications, but early diagnosis is important. If left untreated, it can cause visual impairment or even blindness. It is quite rare, however, only occurring in about 33 cases per million contact lens wearers.

A quick note about water from a hose

One other water hazard to watch for comes into play when you use the garden hose, a sprinkler or water guns to keep cool.

Water from a hose is typically safe. But keep in mind (and remind your children) that it’s not safe to spray or shoot water into anyone’s eyes at close range. Water hitting the eye at a high velocity can cause damage.

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How to spot signs of infection

Typical signs of an eye infection include:

  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Discharge that is yellowish or mucus-like
  • Vision problems
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Swelling

Acanthamoeba keratitis presents with similar symptoms, but also can include excessive tearing and the sensation that you have something in your eye.

Protect your vision with prompt treatment

If you suspect you may have an eye infection, it’s important to see an eye doctor immediately for an evaluation.

Treatment for eye infections depends on the cause. However, treatment may include:

  • Warm compresses to soothe the pain
  • Eye drops
  • Creams
  • Antibiotics

If an infection isn’t treated correctly and quickly, it can cause damage and scarring to the retina. And that can affect your vision long-term.

So go ahead and enjoy the water when the weather turns hot. But keep your eyes open for signs of trouble.

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Richard Gans, MD

Richard E Gans, M.D., FACS joined the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute in 2004. He is an accomplished surgeon and a comprehensive ophthalmologist.
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