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by Elaine K Howley

February 5, 2021

Rash and itch could be a sign of something more than just dry skin

When your immune system overreacts to a substance your body has become hypersensitive to, that’s an allergy. Your immune system is responding to a trigger in the environment that it believes to be a pathogen and as such, certain annoying, persistent symptoms may emerge. These can include hives, itching and redness of the skin, sneezing, or watering eyes. For many people, pet dander, pollen, foods, or dust can trigger such responses. In severe cases, an allergic reaction can be deadly.

For some folks out there, swimming in a chlorinated pool can trigger a bunch of symptoms, including itchy, watery eyes, rashes, hives, or dry, itchy skin. As such, many people refer to this as a “chlorine allergy.”

But the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology states this sensitivity to pool chemicals isn’t a true allergy. “Chlorine reactions may include itchy, red skin or hives (itchy bumps). This is not an allergy but is actually ‘irritant dermatitis’ (like a chemical burn), caused by hypersensitivity to this natural irritant. Chlorine is also drying to the skin and can irritate existing dermatitis.”

That said, the ACAAI notes that chlorine exposure may “indirectly contribute to allergies by irritating and sensitizing the respiratory tract. Studies have suggested that frequent swimming in chlorinated pools and exposure to cleaning products containing chlorine may increase the risk of developing asthma and other respiratory allergies, both in adolescents and in adults.”

It can be a fine line of distinction between allergy and sensitivity reaction, and for many people, exposure to chlorine can lead to uncomfortable and unsightly skin symptoms, sneezing, coughing, and eye irritation. Sensitivity to chlorine can actually worsen over time with long-term exposure.

Managing Chlorine Sensitivity

If you feel like you’ve developed a sensitivity or an allergy to chlorine, there are a few things you can do to limit its impact so you can continue swimming.

Visit your doctor

First, if you’re having a severe allergic reaction to anything, seek immediate emergency care. Second, anytime you develop signs of an allergy or sensitivity, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to make sure there’s not a more serious health issue at work. Your doctor or an allergist can run tests to reveal the root of the problem and may be able to prescribe treatments, such as a corticosteroid cream, that can soothe irritated skin.

Shower before and after every swim

In addition to taking a cleansing shower before entering the pool, you should shower or rinse after every swim. When chlorine reacts to trace amounts of organic matter such as urine and sweat that may be on your skin when you enter the pool, that generates gaseous byproducts called chloramines. These tend to hover in the few inches above the water and can cause you to cough or sneeze and can exacerbate symptoms of asthma.

Showering after you leave the pool means that any chemicals still on your skin will be rinsed away, stopping their ability to irritate, dry out, and burn your skin.

Talk with the swimming pool operator

If you develop a rash after swimming or are struggling with other types of sensitivity to chlorine such as red eyes, watery, burning eyes, or excessive coughing or sneezing, talk to the pool operator to make sure the pool is properly maintained.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that public pools and other treated swimming waters be carefully monitored. The pH level—a measurement of how acidic or how basic the water is—should be between 7.2 and 7.8. This is on a scale of 1 to 14, with 1 being very acidic and 14 being very alkaline or basic. A reading of 7 is considered neutral. Free-chlorine concentration should be at least 1 part per million in swimming pools and at least 3 parts per million in hot tubs or spas.

Look for a different pool

If the pool is being maintained properly and you’re still struggling, see if there’s another pool in the area you can visit that uses a different sanitizer such as bromine. Bromine can cause skin reactions in some people, too, but you may find relief if your chlorine reaction is severe.

You might also consider a pool that’s treated with ozone, which is typically used in conjunction with either bromine or chlorine but reduces the amount of chemicals needed.

Saltwater sanitization systems are also a good option for those with mild chlorine sensitivities. Although these systems also use chlorine, it’s delivered in less intense concentrations than an old-school chlorine pool.

Head for open water

If open water is an option for you, you might consider shifting your focus to natural bodies of water that don’t contain chemical disinfecting agents. Just be aware that there are other kinds of potential irritants and allergens, from jellyfish to duck itch, that can come from some open water venues.

Look for swimming holes that have safe conditions and a good flow of water that will flush out pollutants and toxins. Avoid stagnant ponds and other waterways where the water tends to sit and doesn’t move, as these can be become breeding grounds for dangerous waterborne bacteria and other germs, especially as the temperature climbs.


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