Eye Health

Swimmer’s Eye: what is it and how to prevent and treat it?

Dr. Matthew Sharpe- Founder of SharpeVision

By Dr. Matthew R. Sharpe

February 28, 2022

Swimming is one of the best ways to stay fit and healthy. What’s more, swimming is an excellent way to spend a summer’s day. Unfortunately, irritation and redness in and around the eyes during and after swimming can ruin any day out. Known as swimmer’s eye, this is one of the most common conditions swimmers experience. Let’s look at what you need to know about swimming eye and how to treat the problem.

What is Swimmer’s Eye?

A swimmer’s eye infection may not actually be an infection. An infection means that bacteria, viruses or fungi may be a part of the inflammation, and is much more serious than simple irritation of the eye due to chlorine from a swimming pool. Swimmer’s eye may be due to the redness and irritation from the chemicals in swimming pools.  The chemicals may not be the only reason for swimmer’s eye, but they definitely contribute to the redness. The surface of our eyes are covered in a complex layer of mucin, a very slippery layer that protects the base layer of skin called corneal epithelium. The water layer (called aqueous layer) is on top of the mucin, and on top of the water, there is an oil layer that keeps the water layer stable and decreases the amount of evaporation. All of those layers are wiped away by the water and more specifically the chemicals. In swimming pools the most common chemical is chlorine

What are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Eye?

The symptoms you are likely to experience depend on the severity of pool eyes. The most common symptoms are redness and itchiness around the eyes. For the majority of swimmers, this is no more than an irritation that will soon resolve itself. On the other hand, more severe symptoms may require additional care and treatment. The major symptoms to look out for include:

  • Redness in the eyes

  • Stinging sensations

  • Burning sensations

  • Swollen eyelids

  • Discharge

  • Blurred vision

  • Light sensitivity

Do remember that when discharge is present and the eye is red, the condition can be contagious. If that is the case, we strongly recommend that you seek immediate care from an eye doctor to diagnose and treat the suspected infection.

What Causes a Swimmer’s Eye Infection?

Swimming eyes come primarily from the chlorine used to prevent mold and bacteria growth in pools and saunas. The chemical treatment of the water in public pools is designed to prevent the spread of disease and is directly responsible for what many refer to as “chlorine eye.” Always remember to suspect infection even if you think it’s just swimmer’s eye. There is a very dangerous infection that is often a result of wearing contact lenses in an under-chlorinated pool or non-chlorinated water source such as a pond or lake called Acanthamoeba. This particular infection is one of the worst eye infections you can get and can lead to perforations of the cornea, permanent decrease in vision, multiple surgeries or even loss of the eye. It is very difficult to treat. Take-home message is: do not wear your contact lenses in a pond or lake. This is super dangerous!

Swimmer’s eye by itself typically results in dry, irritated eyes due to the chemical conjunctivitis. Our eyes were never designed to sustain the prolonged presence of chlorine around them. In the presence of these chemicals, the protective tear film becomes disrupted.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Eye

Every swimmer will experience this condition at some point. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of experiencing swimming eyes.

The key is to limit the exposure to chlorine in the pool. Follow these steps to prevent swimmer’s eye:

  • Wear Goggles – The simplest way to avoid exposing your eyes to chlorine is to wear proper eye protection. Seek out a high-quality pair of swim goggles and wear them whenever entering the pool.

  • Practice Proper Swimming Technique – Children are more likely to experience this condition due to poor swimming technique and opening their eyes underwater. Correct swimming form is designed to keep the sensitive parts of your eyes away from the water by keeping your eyes closed if you’re getting water in them.

  • Get Out of the Pool – If you feel any irritation around your eyes, it makes sense to climb out of the pool and call it a day. But remember to wear sunscreen if you’re sunning yourself. The other danger is skin cancer. Wow, who knew a relaxing day could have those risks! You can have lots of fun knowing that you’re taking the precautions to keep you safe.

How Long Does Swimmer’s Eye Last?

For the majority of people, the condition should last no more than a few hours. If the condition lasts for more than two days or does not respond to treatments like eye drops after swimming, you should seek the help of a medical professional.

Untreated eye infections of any type have the potential to cause permanent damage, which could include sight loss.

How to Treat Swimmer’s Eye

Treating itchy and irritated eyes can largely be done at home. Remember, chlorine dries out the eyes, which allows an infection to occur. With that in mind, here are some ideas for treating your eyes after swimming.

Flush the Eyes

Flushing the eyes with either artificial tears or sterile saline if you think you have some foreign body in your eye. It helps wash away foreign bodies from the eye’s surface. This is the simplest way of speeding up the recovery from chemical conjunctivitis.

If you are wearing contact lenses, take them out. Do not wear contacts in lakes or ponds. Switch to prescription glasses in the meantime.

Use Compresses

Cold compresses are some of the most effective home treatments for itchy and irritated eyes. Alternate between a cold and warm compress to help eliminate the swelling. It also offers some relief from the irritation inherent in the condition.

Use Eye Drops for Swimmers

If the symptoms of the eye infection are particularly problematic, any artificial tears will work as eye drops for chlorine exposure. You can buy these in any pharmacy or online. Some good brands are Systane, Blink, and Refresh. They come in multiple formulations. Don’t worry too much about the type because they are all very similar and all will soothe an irritated red eye. It will take a day to restore the surface of your eyes to comfort. If it’s longer than 24 hours, I would suspect something more serious and you may want to seek out care from your eye care professionals.

These lubricating eye drops can be purchased without a prescription. Simply put in a drop frequently while your eyes are irritated and the irritation and inflammation should clear within a matter of hours.

Take note: sometimes the redness is accompanied by itching, which is the hallmark of an allergy. In this case, your doctor will likely recommend using an eye drop for allergies such as Patanol, Pataday, or another over-the-counter eye drop for allergies.

Swim in Saltwater

Perhaps the easiest home treatment option for swimmers who live near the ocean is to swim in the sea. Salt water is generally less irritating to the eyes than chlorine. While you may still want to keep your eyes closed underwater while you swim, it is less likely to irritate your eyes.

If you are particularly prone to swimming eye, you may even want to consider taking your usual swims in the ocean.


Experiencing pool eyes is never pleasant, and it happens to most ardent swimmers at some point. By knowing what to do to prevent and treat the condition, you can enjoy many hours in the pool without worrying about causing damage to your vision.

If you require a pair of prescription goggles or are allergic to chlorine, speak to an eye doctor who can examine your eyes and provide a tailored treatment plan.

To learn more about your vision, schedule your free comprehensive exam with SharpeVision now. Our LASIK vision center has the solutions you need to improve your vision!

Dr. Matthew Sharpe- Founder of SharpeVision

Dr. Matthew R. Sharpe

Dr. Matthew Sharpe is an Ophthalmologist specializing in refractive surgery and the owner SharpeVision MODERN LASIK & LENS, with offices in Seattle, Austin, and Chicago. Dr. Sharpe is a world traveler, pianist, marathon runner, motorcyclist, and fluent French speaker. He enjoys every second of life, but finds he is happiest at home cheering on The Ohio State Buckeyes with his wife, three children, and four dogs.
Signature of Dr. Matthew Sharpe, MD
Make a Payment