Can you Open Your Eyes Underwater?

Brief Outline of this Article:

Staycation Sorrow

During the summer in Phoenix, you can find locals in one of two places.  If we are not catching a movie in a chilly theater, we are poolside, swimming, BBQing, or just trying to keep cool!  Life seemed much simpler back then.  We made unforgettable family memories during summer vacations, my favorites involving swimming!  My family took many ‘staycations’ during the summer months.

It should be no surprise that our favorite local getaways were, and still are, the valley hotels with the best pools. Water slides, beach entries, and lazy rivers were a must.  My sister and I would spend as much time as possible exploring the hotel grounds, but the majority of our time was spent in the water, sometimes more than 10 hours a day.

Luckily, my sister and I were blessed with olive skin and our parents were serious about sun screen, so sunburn was not a frequent problem.  Spending hours in the water is a child’s dream, but I vividly remember the downside.  I recall, on several occasions, the excruciating pain of what many call, ‘chlorine eyes.’

Not only would I spend hours in the pool each day, I would spend most of my time in the pool underwater, with my eyes wide open.  Within an hour of returning to our hotel room, my eyes would turn cherry red and my eyesight got blurry.  The burning and stinging was so extreme I would have to keep my eyes closed throughout dinner.

Barely opening my eyes to give the wait staff my order, I surely did not look like I belonged in a fancy hotel restaurant.   No, with this look, I would have made a fantastically believable 8-year old stoner in a Cheech and Chong movie, but that is about it. (Speaking of stoners, I certainly would have been grateful, if I had known anything at that age, for a bit of bud to relieve the pain I was experiencing!)

I’m sure the wait staff thought I was peculiar, but I couldn’t help it.  Keeping my eyes closed made them feel a little better, which was more important than caring what the staff thought about me.

As a kid, I always assumed my eye irritation was the product of high chlorine levels in the pool.  Boy was I wrong!

At the age of 15, I took my first summer job as a lifeguard.  During this time, I took a class on pool chemistry.  I learned just how wrong I was about the cause of my eye irritation. The truth is much more unsettling.

Causes of Eye Irritation After Swimming (aka ‘chlorine eyes’)

Common Misconceptions

‘Chlorine eyes’ is a term used to describe the eye irritation some experience following a day at the swimming pool.  This irritation is characterized by a painful burning or stinging sensation and bloodshot, dry eyes.

If you are someone who burns easily, irritated eyes are the last thing you need.  A sunburn coupled with irritated eyes can put a real damper on an otherwise perfect holiday at the pool.

Mistakenly, most people associate eye irritation with high levels of chlorine in the swimming pool, hence ‘chlorine eyes.’ Although this would cause eye irritation, it is the most unlikely culprit.  Irritation caused by high levels of chlorine in the water is the least common of three possible causes of eye irritation after swimming.

From least to most common, here are the reasons many people, after experiencing eye irritation, decide to forever avoid opening their eyes underwater:

1. Too Much Chlorine in the water

If the chlorine is too high in a pool, your bathing suit will start to fade and your skin will feel itchy and dry.  If you have blonde hair, it may start to turn green.

Chlorine smells extremely pungent, almost like bleach. If chlorine levels are high enough to smell, your nose will feel irritated and it will be hard to breath.  Taking a deep breath with chlorine in the air will burn your lungs.  If you have ever shocked your outdoor pool, you may have inhaled chlorine by accident.  It is highly toxic and painful.

High chlorine levels will irritate your eyes so, if you notice any of the effects described above, avoid putting your head under water.  In fact, ask pool staff to check and make necessary adjustments to the chemicals before you enter the pool.

Chlorine levels have to be very high in a pool for a swimmer to smell the chlorine.  If a pool has a the correct amount of chlorine in it, the PH is balanced, and people have rinsed off before entering, you should not smell anything.  An odorless pool is a sign of a safe pool.

2. Unbalanced PH Levels

A more common cause of, ineptly named, ‘chlorine eyes’ is unbalanced PH levels in the pool.  The PH of the human eye is 7.4.  If PH level in the water is higher or lower than 7.4, eyes can quickly become irritated.

If you are at a public pool, you can always ask staff for the latest chemical readings.  They are required to take readings hourly.  If levels are unbalanced, the fix is simple, so it never hurts to check! 

It is also important, if eye irritation occurs later on, to know the specific cause, so do not be afraid to ask for a chemical reading the minute you start to feel the discomfort of impending eye irritation. As discussed below, certain remedies are better for irritation caused by PH level unbalance and others are better for irritation caused by contaminants.

Are you ready for the most common reason for eye irritation after swimming? Brace yourself! It is not what you expect!

3.  Chloramines, more like Chlora-MEANIES!

Ever wonder why some pools have a super strong chemical smell?  This is the same smell I talked about earlier.  Most people associate the familiar muggy smell of an indoor pool or Jacuzzi locker room with high levels of chlorine.

Sorry to say, most people would be wrong. Even though most people are misinformed as to the cause of the muggy pool smell, they are right to be concerned about swimming in a pool that smells.

This muggy, musty, mildewy, rotten egg smell signals A LACK OF CHLORINE in the pool.

I was skeptical too, but hear me out.  Chlorine, in an attempt to keep the water clean, binds to contaminants, such as pee, sweat, dust, bacteria, poop particles and more.  This combination produces a stinky little chloramine.

If the contaminants in the water outnumber the chlorine particles, chlorine loses its battle to keep the water clear of contaminants.  The outnumbered chlorine soldiers, ahem I mean particles, are busy sparring, I mean binding, with as many contaminants as possible, but they are spread too thin.  Poop, pee, and sweat take the W.  There is no more chlorine available to kill off the remaining contaminants, so we are left with a bunch of stinky chloramines.

If you smell chlorine at a pool, tell a staff member so they can check the chemicals.  When a pool smells like this, your eyes are likely to get irritated if you open them underwater without goggles on.  After all, chloramines contain bacteria.

The best way to avoid getting sick or irritating your eyes is to avoid entering a smelly pool to begin with.

I know, I know, you are probably reading this because your eyes are already irritated and you are desperately searching for a remedy right?  Don’t worry, treatments are discussed next.

Treatment for and Prevention of Swimming-Related Eye Irritation

There are a quite a few treatments and home remedies to soothe irritated eyes.  There is no way to know which method will work best for you, so I will include as many as I can.  If one does not soothe your eyes, move to the next.  Odds are one of the methods listed will give you, at the very least, temporary relief.

Methods to PREVENT eye irritation:

Method 1: Gel Eye Drops

Gel eye drops are thicker than other drops so they provide a nice tear barrier between your eyes and the water.  These drops are great for preventing eye irritation if used before entering the pool.

Method 2: Contacts

This is not a highly recommended method and should only be used if you will NOT be underwater for prolonged periods.  For example, many water polo players buy non prescription contacts and wear them while playing, to prevent irritation from water splashing in their eyes.  They claim the contacts work to prevent post game irritation.  However, wearing contacts under water for a prolonged period of time can cause infection, eye irritation, and potential sight problems.

Methods to TREAT eye irritation:

Different methods are better suited for different situations.  If the method is specific to a certain situation, I have made a note of it for your reference.

Method 1: Cold Water Rinse/Saline Water Rinse

Rinse each eye with cold water or saline water to rid eyes of chloramines after swimming.  Fill cup with cool water. Hold head over the sink.  Position your head over the sink, bending at the waste. Turn your head, left chin to left shoulder, and slowly pour cold water into your left eye.  Repeat on right eye. Best used for eyes irritated from too much chlorine or too many chloramines.

Method 2: Saline Eye Drops

These eye drops will help to rinse out eyes, just like the cold water in method 1.  Best used for eyes irritated from too much chlorine or too many chloramines.

The best eye drops I have found for rinsing, can be purchased through this link: (They also provide great redness relief)

Method 3: Lubricating Eye Drops

For soothing relief, use lubricated eye drops.  If your eyes are dry from chloramines, these eye drops will help with the burning and stinging sensation. Best for eyes irritated by too much chlorine or unbalanced PH.

I recommend these lubricating eye drops for fast relief:

Method 4: Milk

Put a couple drops of milk in each eye. The milk helps restore your eyes natural PH level.  This method is supposed to provide rapid relief, soothing eyes within minutes of putting the milk in your eye.

This method works best for eyes irritated from unbalanced PH levels in pool.

Method 5: Baking Soda Mixture

Mix .5 teaspoons baking soda with 1 cup of water.  Dissolve baking soda. Dip a cotton pad into the mixture and press against your eyes, trying to let some of the liquid seep between your eyelids.  Best for eye irritation caused by unbalanced PH levels in pool.

Method 6: Cold Compress

Put a cold compress over your eyelids (eyes closed) until eyes feel relief.  Use this method until compress gets warm, take off compress, put in eyedrops listed in one of the methods above, reapply cold compress. Repeat until eyes feel relief.

Method 7: Frozen and Chilled Foods

Place any of the following items over your eyes:

Make sure your are laying down when you apply item of choice on closed eyelids.  Relax until you start to feel relief.  If item gets warm, apply another cold item.

Method 8: Aloe Vera Mixture

Mix a half teaspoon of Aloe Vera (fresh or gel) with a half cup of water.  Dip in a cotton ball and place over eyes. Lay back and wait to feel relief. Rinse off your eyes after removing cotton balls. Do not repeat more than three times in one sitting.


I hope you have found this article useful.  Please do not hesitate to ask any questions or leave any comments below.  If you have your own special trick to treat irritated eyes, please share with us!

Thanks for reading. 


10 Responses

  1. I used to go for my smimming classes during my childhood and I always used to wonder why my eyes burn after swimming. Today after about 20 years, after reading this blog I understand the cause for the burn . I really liked the ways you have mentioned about the treatement for eye burn . It would defenitely help a lot of people. I would definetely follow the above instructions when I go for swimming next time.

    Thank you very much

    1. So glad I could help solve a 20 year old mystery! Trust me, you are not alone. Many people assume it is chlorine or just do not care. However, without knowledge of the cause, it becomes difficult to find the correct treatment. Thanks for stopping by! Happy Swimming. 🙂

  2. I really like the explaination of the cause of eye irritation as well as the different types of treatment. I knew that using the saline drops help because that’s mainly what I would use when it happened to me. The part about the other solutions such as the cold items and baking soda I never knew about. I couldn’t tell you how many times that happened to me as a kid. That’s because we were in a unique but good situation where we swam almost every day of the summer. We were next door to my grandparents which had a pool in their back yard so we definantly got our activity in through swimming. Had some good memories. I like all of the information given here and it’s great for anyone that has this issue.

    1. Thanks Justin! We are so fortunate to have had childhoods allowing for plenty of pool time! Thank you for commenting and hope you find some time in the near future to enjoy a day at the pool! …As long as the chemicals are balanced! 🙂

  3. Hey Ash,

    I loved your article! I was on the swim team throughout high school and can attest to the “chlorine eye’s” myself. I naturally suffer from dry eyes but my love for all things swimming would never keep me away from diving in. It wasn’t until I became a life guard that I learned about the ph levels. I love that you provided so many options for treatment and prevention. I always just stuck with the cold compress myself. I never heard of the aloe treatment. It is great for a lot of things. BTW, now almost 20 years later, I still swim almost every day. The Systane Balance is a perfect product for treatment, I keep a bottle of that in my car just incase I’m headed to the pool. Thanks so much for your post I really enjoyed reading it.


    1. Thank you for stopping by Stephanie. Systane has saved me from suffering so many times now. Love that you still swim everyday. Many people are unaware swimming is one of the best exercises out there. It is the only aerobic exorcise that uses all the muscles in your body. That is why swimmers have some beautiful bodies! Have a great day and keep swimming!

  4. Thank you, Ash.

    I always get annoyed and feel my time wasted when I see articles that give little advice. My mind still wants to understand the reason why and how things work before I can take any information. I like how you have explained methods to prevent eye irritation.
    Your article had value in every sentence for me, and I am grateful. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Tina! Appreciate the compliment and very happy to hear you enjoyed reading my article. Have a wonderful week. Hope you get some poolside time in soon. You deserve it.

  5. I never knew a public pool had to check for PH level once an hour. I bet this procedure is rarely followed. Now I know the true source of my eye irritations going forward when spending a lot of time on the water. I have heard many state that they have a allergy to chlorine. I have a few friends that say this all the time. I will direct them to this site. Great article filled with tons of information.

    1. Thank you, Brian! Yes, public pools should have hourly logs of their chemical readings. If you ask a staff member, they should be willing to show you. If they are not, you can always call the health department. It is important they follow these guidelines, especially with the outbreaks pools have had in the last five years, crypto and the like. Have a wonderful day!

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