5 Ways to Protect Your Eyes While Swimming

Before you dive in, learn these simple rules to keep your eyes safe.

two girls swimming wearing googles

Swimming has inherent risks. You know this. But you probably don’t realize the biggest one is to your eyes.

Water and pool activities are the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries in the United States, according a 2018 report from Prevent Blindness, an advocacy group that works to preserve eyesight.

The report, which includes data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, concludes that water activities account for more than 6,500 injuries a year, more than half in children younger than 14. By comparison, basketball accounts for an estimated 5,141 injuries in children and adults, and baseball and softball about half that.

The good news: It’s not difficult to safeguard your vision and your fun. Here are five ways to protect your eyes in the pool, ocean, lake, or even hot tub. 

Water-Safety Rule #1: Stick to Swimming Areas You Know and Trust

Even in well-maintained pools, there’s a risk of developing an infection whenever you take a dip, says Jeff Foster, O.D., an optometrist at the America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in San Antonio.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recreational water illnesses, which are caused by contact with contaminated pools, lakes, oceans, and more, have been on the rise for the past two decades. 

In natural bodies of water, like lakes and oceans, “you do subject yourself to the bacteria that’s in the water because it’s not chlorinated,” says Dr. Foster.

One serious (but rare) eye infection is Acanthamoeba keratitis, a microbe that can be found in lakes and oceans and can cause vision loss or blindness if not caught and treated early.

Bacteria and parasites aside, the salt from the ocean can also irritate eyes, or cause dryness or irritation. It’s always a good idea to keep your eyes closed underwater, Dr. Foster says.

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Give yourself some peace of mind by checking water conditions before you pack up the car. The Environmental Protection Agency provides water-bacteria reports and updates on what beaches are open for swimming for all coastal and Great Lakes beaches. And you can get similar water reports from state and local parks services where swimming is allowed. 

Don’t let your guard down around man-made bodies of water, either. For example, if your family has a pool, it’s important to keep it clean with chemicals like chlorine. In the right amounts, standard pool chemicals can kill most bacteria such as E. coli in less than a minute, according to the CDC. Other contaminants take longer, so it’s important to stay on top of the chlorine level in the pool. Keeping the pH at a proper level is also essential to allow chlorine to do its job and to reduce eye and skin irritation. 

Hotels and community pools are required to clearly post their current inspection report. But a good rule of thumb is to stay out if the water looks cloudy, slimy, or discolored. These are big red flags that the pool is not fit for even a toe dip.

Water-Safety Rule #2: Wear Goggles

A chlorinated pool can kill most of the germs. (Yay, chlorine!) But chlorine can also irritate your eyes. 

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), pool chemicals can irritate the tear film, or the thin layer of tears that coat the surface of the eyes, causing your eyes to feel gritty and red. This can lead to “swimmer’s eye,” a type of dry eye that often occurs in people who use the pool.

Wearing goggles can protect your eyes not just from the chlorine but also from any lingering bacteria or parasites in the pool. They can also help ward off any germs found in natural bodies of water, says Dr. Foster.

Plus, goggles give you and your kids some protection from getting scratched or poked in the eye by other swimmers.

Water-Safety Rule #3: Take Out Your Contact Lenses

Losing your contact lens in the pool might be the least of your worries: The AAO warns that swimming in your contacts puts you at risk for a corneal infection, which can lead to eye damage and possibly vision loss. And your goggles won’t help you here.

“If people open their eyes with their lenses in, bacteria or chemicals can become embedded in the contact lens and stay in the eye a lot longer than they otherwise would have,” says Dr. Foster. 

Even worse, he says, the bacteria can slip “underneath the contact lens and stay on the surface of the eye, which can be dangerous.” 

This is especially important for people who swim in their two-week or monthly lenses; the longer you wear them after you’ve gone swimming, he says, the higher your chances of getting an eye infection. 

You should also take out your contacts if you’re sitting in a hot tub. “A hot tub is like an incubator for bacteria to grow,” says Dr. Foster. “If you’re in a hot tub with your contact lenses, you subject yourself to Acanthamoeba, and that can really harm your cornea.”

If you or your child have a high prescription—for example, you might have trouble finding the pool without your glasses, let alone a pool ring—consider buying prescription goggles. 

“They can be expensive,” says Dr. Foster, “but for someone who’s very nearsighted, it’s good for them to see what they are doing.”

Some sporting goods stores and swim specialty shops also carry swim goggles with magnifying powers, similar to reading glasses.

Water-Safety Rule #4: Flush Your Eyes Out with Artificial Tears

It’s always a good idea to use artificial tears on your eyes after you get out of the pool, says Dr. Foster. “Artificial tears help restore the pH to the eye,” he says, “and they flush out some of the irritants.” 

“It really can help filter a lot,” he says.

For the record, tap water can also harbor Acanthamoeba and other bacteria, he says, which is why it’s only recommended that you use it in a pinch as an emergency eye rinse—and never for contact lens storage. 

Water-Safety Rule #5: Wear Sunglasses with 100% UV Protection

Your skin isn’t the only part of your body that’s at risk for a sunburn—your eyes are also susceptible to sun damage. That’s because the UV rays can temporarily damage the outermost layer of your eye’s cornea, causing a condition called photokeratitis.

Plus, photokeratitis isn’t just triggered by direct sunlight—it can also be caused by the reflection of the sunlight off water, sand, and snow, according to the AAO.

If you’re a lifeguard, teaching swimming lessons, or simply hanging out at the pool or beach all day, “you’re getting the sun and then you’re getting the reflection of the sun off the water,” says Dr. Foster. “Sunglasses with 100% UV protection are going to be really important.”

In most cases, the symptoms of photokeratitis (including pain, redness, and sensitivity) will fade away in a few days, but doctors can also treat the condition with lubricating drops (which will help soothe the eye) or antibiotics.