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by Carol Brzozowski

December 13, 2019

Swimmers should avoid swim practice after a second-degree burn until healing is complete

Whether from too much sun or an accident that causes damage to your skin and deeper tissues, a second-degree burn is not only painful but can sideline swim practice until the skin is healed.

You can swim with burns while wearing a waterproof bandage within one to two days of the injury, says Lauren Ploch, a board-certified dermatologist in Augusta, Ga. Otherwise, the wait time depends on where the wound is located and its width, as some body areas heal faster than others, she adds.

If you don’t want to wear a waterproof bandage, you should avoid swimming until the burn is fully healed and no blistered or broken skin remains, says Dana Ellis, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Newport Beach, Calif., who represented Canada in the pole vault at the 2004 Olympic Games.

There could be a higher risk of infection if you swim before the burn is fully healed, says Hayes B. Gladstone, president of the Gladstone Clinic in San Ramon, Calif., and former director and associate professor of dermatologic surgery at Stanford University.

Swim practice with broken skin should be avoided, whether it’s done in a chlorinated pool or the open water, Ellis says.

“Exposing broken skin to the chemicals in pool water or the high salt content of ocean water can cause irritation and possible infection,” she says.

Gladstone says there is a higher risk of infection with open water swimming.

“However, there is still bacteria in a chlorinated pool, and the chlorine can cause further irritation of the skin,” he adds.

Swimming after a second-degree burn can lead to complications when chemicals penetrate the layer of disrupted skin and cause problems with healing and possibly lead to infection, Ellis says.

Swimmers should first treat a blister or second-degree burn by soaking it with cold water— a cold compress—held to the skin to decrease pain, Ellis says.

“Ice should never be applied directly on a burn,” she says. “Antibacterial cream and a nonstick dressing or bandage applied and changed daily can be used to prevent infection. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be taken to help control pain and swelling.”

Ploch recommends washing wounds daily with warm water and a mild soap, followed by a rinse and a pat dry. Apply a healing ointment such as Vaseline, Vaniply Ointment, or CeraVe Healing Ointment and apply a bandage.

For those who do not have an allergy to sulfa, a silver sulfadiazine cream such as Silvadene can be prescribed, Gladstone says.

“Initially applying an antibiotic ointment for the first 48 to 72 hours twice per day to the burn and using Vaseline or Aquaphor at least twice per day will help reduce the risk of infection and aid in healing,” he adds. “Your skin likes to be moist.”

With treatment, second-degree burns usually heal with little or no scarring within about three weeks, Ellis says.

While accidents leading to second-degree burns sometimes cannot be avoided, there are measures swimmers can take to prevent second-degree burns from the sun.

“Many people develop second-degree burns from extended exposure to the sun,” Ellis says. “Sunburns can be prevented through the regular application of sunblock. A broad spectrum, water-resistant sunblock of at least SPF 30 is best, and frequent reapplication is key.”

It’s crucial to reapply sunblock every two hours, Gladstone says.

Choosing sunblock offers better protection against UVA and UVB rays that can cause burns and skin cancer, he adds, recommending products containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Looking for more great information about swimming? Check out our Swimming 101 guide featuring swimming pool and stroke basics, how to start swim training as an adult, and more.


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