Chlorine Rash: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

You’ve just been swimming in a pool and developed an itchy rash shortly after getting out. Could this rash be due to the chlorine in the pool? Yes, chlorine rashes, also known as chlorine sensitivities, can occur. This article will explore what a chlorine rash is, identify the symptoms and treatment, and discuss ways to prevent getting one.

Chlorine rash — what is it?

A chlorine rash is a rash that appears after swimming in a chlorinated pool or coming in contact with chlorine. It may also be referred to as a chlorine allergy, which isn’t an allergy but a sensitivity to chlorine known as irritant contact dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes in contact with a chemical that induces an immune response that can produce an itchy rash on the skin.

Research has shown that swimming in chlorinated water can dry out your skin, stripping it of its normal oils. Individuals with a history of allergies or skin issues may be more prone to aggravated skin or a rash due to the chlorine drying out their skin.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that chlorine levels be routinely checked in pools and maintained at the levels recommended by the health department. Chlorine is added to pool water to kill germs. However, it takes time to work, and things like sunlight, dirt, debris, skin, and fecal matter can reduce the chlorine in swimming pools. Due to this, it is crucial that the chlorine levels of a pool are maintained and the pH levels of the pool are balanced to meet the levels recommended by the health department.

The human body maintains a pH level of 7.2 and 7.8. When pool water is not kept within that range, swimmers can experience irritation in their eyes and skin. When this occurs with a rash, it is known as chlorine rash.

What are the symptoms of chlorine rash?

Symptoms of a chlorine rash include the following:

  • Skin redness, tenderness, and inflammation
  • Itchiness at the site of contact
  • Skin lesions or rash
  • Scales or crust on the skin
  • Hives
  • Skin dryness and irritation

Some people may be more at risk of getting a chlorine rash. People with long-term exposure to chlorine, such as lifeguards, professional cleaners, and swimmers with more than 1,000 hours of chlorine exposure, are more likely to develop chlorine sensitivity.

Sensitivities to chlorine are also more likely in pools that recently increased the chlorine levels to kill potential bacteria, such as E. coli.

Similar rashes

Skin rashes can be difficult to determine the cause because many rashes have similarities. Other rashes that are similar to chlorine rash include the following:

  • Swimmer's itch
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis

Swimmer’s itch, also known as cercarial dermatitis, is caused by an allergic reaction to some parasites that infect birds and mammals. These parasites can get released into fresh and saltwater. If they come in contact with your skin, they will burrow into the skin and cause an allergic reaction and a rash. If you swim in fresh or saltwater infected with these parasites, you may experience tingling, burning, or itching of the skin, small reddish pimples, or small blisters within minutes to days after swimming in the contaminated water.

Eczema is an inflammatory condition of the skin that causes itchiness, dry skin, rashes, scaly patches, blisters, and skin infections. The different types of eczema include atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis. Eczema can present with red and inflamed skin for lighter skin tones or brown, purple, gray, or ashen skin for darker skin tones. Itchiness often accompanies the skin changes experienced.

Psoriasis is a chronic disease where the immune system becomes overactive and causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The result is scaly and inflamed patches of skin, usually located on the scalp, elbows, and knees, but other parts of the body may also be affected.

How to identify chlorine rash

If you have recently been swimming in a chlorinated pool and develop red, irritated skin that almost feels burnt, there is a chance this rash is chlorine rash.

It is recommended to consult with your healthcare provider for severe chlorine rash or a rash that isn’t resolving. Your healthcare provider will be able to determine the type of rash and appropriate treatment and place a referral to an allergist if necessary. Receiving the proper care and treatment for chlorine rash will allow you to still enjoy swimming.

How long does chlorine rash last?

Chlorine rash will continue to get worse with repeated exposure. If you develop a chlorine rash, it should clear up within a few days if you limit your exposure to chlorine.

If your rash isn’t going away, worsens, becomes painful, or spreads, you should consult with your healthcare provider for further evaluation.

How to prevent chlorine rash

Having a chlorine sensitivity doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to swim in chlorinated pools. There are things you can do that can help prevent you from getting a chlorine rash.

  • If you are prone to chlorine rashes, you can apply an ointment like petroleum jelly to areas that are irritated before going into the pool. This will provide a protective barrier between your skin and the water. If swimming outdoors, apply a sunscreen that contains titanium or zinc oxide to help provide a protective barrier on the skin.
  • Leave the pool area once you are done swimming. Your skin is still exposed to chlorine fumes, which can irritate your skin if you are around the pool, even if you are not physically in the water.
  • Space out periods of chlorine exposure. If your skin is susceptible to skin irritation, allowing time for your skin to heal between chlorine exposures can prevent you from developing a chlorine rash. You may also choose to limit the amount of time spent in chlorine to reduce the chances of developing a chlorine rash.
  • Shower immediately in freshwater once you are done swimming. This will remove any traces of chlorine that irritate your skin. You should also remove and rinse out your swimsuit immediately after swimming.
  • Avoid taking a long, hot shower, as this can further dry out your skin and cause additional irritation. Once you have dried your skin, apply a moisturizer. Chlorine dries the skin out and can exacerbate your symptoms of chlorine rash, which a moisturizer can help prevent.

Treatment options

If you think you’ve developed a chlorine rash, make sure you wash the affected area to remove any traces of the irritant, whether it be pool water or cleaning products.

The rash may resolve on its own, but if it does not, your healthcare provider may recommend a corticosteroid cream. If this is prescribed, make sure you follow the instructions carefully and do not overuse it. If you’ve developed hives, your healthcare provider may recommend taking an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine.

Sometimes, people with chlorine sensitivity may have other symptoms that accompany the chlorine rash, such as coughing, trouble breathing, chest tightness, wheezing, runny nose, stuffy nose, or sneezing. A healthcare provider should evaluate these symptoms as they could be signs of an underlying condition such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

The last word

While chlorine rash may be an uncomfortable side effect of swimming in a pool, appropriate prevention and treatment can allow for participation in swimming. If you think you have a chlorine rash that is getting worse and becoming painful, seek medical advice from your healthcare provider. If you experience respiratory symptoms with chlorine rash, it could be a sign of an underlying medical condition that you should let your doctor know.

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