Eyes React to Pool Water

There aren't many things better for relief on a hot muggy day than a swim in a lake or pool.

But that can increase your chances of getting eye infections resulting from contact with contaminated water, according to an eye specialist at the University of Iowa.

Eye infections may be caused by bacteria or other organisms in the water, says Mark Greiner, MD, an ophthalmologist who specializes in corneal diseases at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

“When it comes to swimming in the hot summer sun, I am most concerned about my patients who wear contact lenses,” Greiner says. “Contact lens wearers are at a particularly high risk for water borne infections.”

Greiner explains that most infections are caused by either bacteria or viruses, but some may be caused by parasites, including Acanthamoeba.

“Acanthamoeba corneal infections are literally a one-in-a-million diagnosis, but in the Midwest, this painful and visually disabling infection may be on the rise,” Greiner says.

He adds that contact lens wear is a risk factor for infection due to Acanthamoeba, and the best ways to avoid infection are to

  • avoid swimming in contact lenses
  • avoid using anything other than approved contact lens cleaning solutions
  • follow the medical advice of your prescribing eye doctor regarding contact lens wear and care.

Confining your swimming to a pool is no guarantee of avoiding eye infections.

Just because a pool has chlorinated water does not mean it is germ-free, Greiner says. Foreign substances--fallen leaves, insects, dirt--can enter the pool, and bacteria might develop. Eye infections also can be spread from swimmer to swimmer.

Greiner says a viral infection is usually "self-limited," therefore no medical treatment is required and the condition will heal naturally.

A bacterial infection, he says, is more serious and usually will require a visit to a doctor who likely will treat it with antibiotics. When the condition is serious—indicated by discharge of fluid from the eye or light sensitivity—you should see a doctor within a day, Greiner says.

The most common type of eye infection resulting from swimming in contaminated water is called conjunctivitis, commonly called "pink eye." When this occurs, Greiner says, the eyes become reddish and fluid is discharged.