You can’t be allergic to chlorine, but you can be sensitive or have a reaction. If you are sensitive, should you stop swimming? No, instead you should find and treat the cause of your sensitivity and find relief.
What you think is a chlorine allergy might actually be underlying asthma, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) or bronchospasm. Your runny nose might be due to other underlying allergy problems.
Find expert care with an Allergist.
Don’t let allergies or asthma hold you.
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.
Chlorine 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.
Those who have asthma, when they go to a chlorinated pool, if they take a deep inhalation, they will find that their lungs will actually burn a little bit. In fact, chlorine when it’s in full concentration will burn a normal skin. But when you find it in chlorine pools, it’s at a concentration that kills the bacteria, but yet it’s not supposed to be an irritant to the general population.
Allergist Leonard Bielory, MD
This is most detectable in people with long-term exposure, including lifeguards, professional cleaners, and swimmers with more than 1,000 hours of exposure. Many Olympic swimmers have suffered from chlorine sensitivity, found relief and gone onto win numerous medals, like six-time U. S. Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken and five-time Australian gold medalist Ian Thorpe.
It may not impact people with less frequent exposure in fact, some studies have shown household use of chlorine bleach can actually reduce the onset of allergies to household allergens such as dust mites, possibly by inactivating allergens.
Chlorine sensitivity can occur when swimming pools increase the amount of chlorine, for example, in response to health scares such as “Swine Flu” or E. coli. Finding facilities with lower chlorine concentrations may resolve your sensitivity.
Skin sensitivity to chlorine can present the following symptoms:
- Skin redness, tenderness, inflammation, and/or itchiness at the site of contact
- Skin lesions or rash
- Scales or crust on the skin
Hives (urticaria) share some of these symptoms (itchiness and redness), but with raised patches or bumps with well-defined edges. Hives may appear suddenly and may grow in size.
People with asthma, EIB and allergic rhinitis, who already have sensitive airways, might also have the following symptoms:
- Coughing, especially at night, with exercise, or when laughing
- Trouble breathing
- A tight feeling in the chest
- Wheezing a squeaky or whistling sound
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose due to blockage or congestion
If you feel like you have a chlorine allergy or sensitivity, it’s time to see an allergist. With the help of testing they can diagnose your symptoms and help you find relief so you can continue to enjoy swimming.
Management and Treatment
Any time you suspect a severe allergic reaction seek immediate emergency care.
Skin sensitivity is typically treated by washing the affected area with clean water to try to remove any traces of the remaining irritant, i.e., cleaning product or swimming pool water. In some cases a corticosteroid cream may be prescribed, but care must be taken to follow the instructions and not overuse it. Hives can be treated with an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine.
If you have or think you may have allergic rhinitis, asthma or EIB, work with your allergist to get these under control and continue swimming.
For more information on the effects of chlorine, contact an allergist in your area.