While it’s one of the best activities out there for exercise, swimming can sometimes pose problems for people with allergies. Along with typical outdoor allergies, such as pollen, mold and dust, does it ever seem like you’re allergic to the pool itself? If so, you’re in good company. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe was plagued with sensitivity to chlorine as a child and initially learned to swim with his head out of the water to lessen the effects.
If chlorine seems to make you miserable, you may be sensitive to it, but not allergic, according to allergy experts, because it’s impossible to be medically allergic to chlorine. That said, if your eyes water and your skin itches when exposed to it, an allergist can help you minimize those symptoms so you can dive back into enjoying pools again.
If chlorine bothers some people, why do we need it? Pools are notorious for spreading water-borne illnesses—like E. coli, giardia and cryptosporidium—making people sick. After illness outbreaks, sometimes pools add more chlorine than is necessary, which can cause more distress. If you or a loved one is sensitive to chlorine, you might experience symptoms that are mild, moderate or severe depending on your sensitivity and the chlorine level. Be on the lookout for:
- Watery, itchy eyes
- Irritated skin, hives or rash
- Asthma symptoms
- Runny nose and sneezing
If you experience a severe reaction, it’s important to go to urgent care to bring your symptoms under control again. If you already have allergies, chlorine might contribute to your allergy symptoms by irritating your respiratory tract—your nose, throat and lungs. Even if you don’t have allergies, chlorine can inflame these sensitive areas, particularly if you’re a frequent swimmer. Using a noseclip can help decrease runny noses from chlorine, but if you experience uncomfortable moderate or severe symptoms regularly, you also may have underlying asthma, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or bronchospasm.
Several medical studies about the relationship between asthma and chlorine contradict each other, failing to reach a clear consensus, with one declaring that children who swim are less likely to have asthma at ages 7 and 10 and another finding “high prevalence of bronchial reactivity” in adolescent and elite swimmers.
Either way, if you find you can’t swim without reacting to chlorine, there are a few things to try:
- Limit your time in the pool and shower immediately after exiting. By washing the chlorinated water off your skin after getting out of the pool, even during short breaks, you’re decreasing the time your body is exposed to chlorine.
- Move outdoors. Indoor pool areas trap chlorine gas inside, which can intensify your reaction. Outdoor pools allow the chlorine to disperse.
- Visit an allergist. With testing, a doctor can pinpoint your specific reaction and treat it, helping you swim comfortably. Treatment might be as simple as allergy medicine before swimming, prescription lotion, showering off immediately after swimming or other treatment, depending on the severity and frequency.
- Consider it might not be chlorine. The pool’s pH level should be between 7.2 and 7.8. Below or above those numbers can cause trouble for your skin and eyes.
- If you have a home pool, look into saltwater. Saltwater pools use chlorine, but in lower concentrations than chlorine pools.