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Swimming with eczema

Women standing in chlorinated swimming pool
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Swimming is a fun and popular activity that’s a great form of low impact exercise. Many parents want their children to learn to swim, as an important life skill. But if you or your child has eczema, you may be wondering what effect swimming has on the skin.

Chlorine and eczema

Chlorine is a powerful disinfecting agent. It’s added to pool water along with a mix of other chemical additives to kill germs, as well as other water-borne illnesses, as an essential part of sanitising public pools. The balance of chemicals can vary from pool to pool, but in the UK, chlorine features in most.

Whilst chlorine has many benefits in keeping nasties out of the water, it can cause allergic-like reactions in some pool users. This includes skin irritations such as redness, itching, or a rash after swimming.

There are alternatives to swimming in a chlorine pool, such as swimming in fresh water or salt water, but this is not always practical, especially during the colder months.

How does swimming pool water affect eczema?

As eczema (or dermatitis) is a very individual condition, the degree of sensitivity and reaction will vary. The most common type is atopic eczema. It’s an allergic condition, often experienced by people with hay fever and/or asthma.

Chemicals such as chlorine can trigger contact dermatitis. It’s a type of dermatitis that occurs when your skin comes into contact with a particular substance. If you have atopic eczema you may be at increased risk of contact dermatitis.

In swimming pool water, the PH level may be raised by the addition of chlorine, and other chemicals. When the PH level rises, it may cause dryness or irritation. As chlorine is a disinfectant, there is some suggestion that it has a role in reducing the amount of bacteria present on the skin. In some eczema sufferers, this can actually be beneficial in reducing symptoms

To help minimise reactions you can:

  • Avoid swimming during an eczema flare up (if possible)
  • Use an emollient cream before and after swimming - emollients for dermatitis are usually fragrance free and made for sensitive skin
  • Investigate other pools - sometimes other chemical compounds are used, which may cause less reactions
  • Swim in outdoor or fresh water pools if possible

Treatment for chlorine rash

For 'swimmer's rash’, or itchy skin after swimming in a chlorinated pool, you can use over-the-counter products such as hydrocortisone cream*. The 'hives' or small bumps that appear with a chlorine rash may be treated with an allergy relief product such as Benadryl*. Also look for soothing lotions and body washes that can remove chlorine from skin and hair after swimming. If you have a rash after swimming, you can visit a pharmacist and get specialised advice. Your local pharmacist will be able to offer advice on treatments to soothe your skin and reduce dryness, cracking and itching.

If you suspect your contact dermatitis or rash has become infected, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. Your symptoms might rapidly worsen and become more painful.

*Always read the label and speak to your LloydsPharmacy Pharmacist for advice.

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Tips for swimming with eczema

  • Shower before swimming to remove other potential irritants such as fragrance or suncream.
  • Shower again after swimming, to remove the chlorine from the skin and reduce the skin's exposure to it. If the pool uses chlorinated water in the showers, ensure you shower at home, or in fresh water.
  • After showering, apply a moisturising lotion. This can help relieve skin prone to dryness or tightness.
  • Eczema sufferers may need to seek specialist advice to find a suitable emollient lotion.
  • Take breaks. If swimming every day is causing sensitivity, reduce how often you swim.
  • Try other pools. As the chemical mix in the water can vary, a different pool may cause less irritation.
  • Investigate other swimming options. You may find that fresh water swimming or open water swimming (where appropriate) provides an alternative.
  • Consider a swimming cap and/or goggles. These can minimise the chlorine exposure to eyes and scalp.

Swimming is a wonderful activity for maintaining health and wellbeing. If you're struggling with a eczema flare-up after swimming, don't assume you have to immediately stop your hobby. Instead, visit your nearest Lloyds Pharmacy for advice on treating and preventing reactions.