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Protecting kids against chlorine Children's Wisconsin

Pool time: How to protect against the side effects of chlorine

The pool is one of the most fun places to cool kids off on hot summer days. Many parents take proactive steps to make sure kids are safe in the water — like getting kids into swimming lessons or using coast-guard-approved flotation devices. But taking additional steps to protect your child against the effects of chlorine can reduce some of the uncomfortable side effects of too much time in the pool. 

Chlorine — the most common chemical used to treat pools — can be helpful in preventing the spread of germs. But too much chlorine exposure can also be harmful to your child’s skin. Taking precautions to minimize chlorine’s impact can ease some of these symptoms. 

What is chlorine? 

Chlorine is a chemical that is often added to the water in pools, hot tubs/spas, water parks and water playgrounds to prevent the spread of germs among swimmers. When added to a pool, chlorine can kill bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and viruses — things that cause conditions like diarrhea and swimmer’s ear. 

However, in addition to bacteria, chlorine can also combine with the body waste swimmers bring into pools — like sweat, urine, feces, dirt, skin cells and personal care products (like deodorant or makeup). When chlorine combines with these substances, it can form chemicals called chloramines, which can irritate skin, eyes and respiratory tract. And, as the number of chloramines increases, the amount of chlorine available to kill germs decreases, making swimmers more susceptible to the bacteria chlorine is intended to eliminate.  

Chlorine’s effect on the body 

Healthy pools and pools that are well-maintained typically have lower levels of chloramines. If you’re swimming in a pool that has a strong “chlorine smell,” it’s likely the pool has high levels of chloramine. If your child is exposed to high levels of chloramine, you may notice: 

  • Respiratory symptoms such as nasal irritation, coughing and wheezing. Chloramines in the water can turn into gas in the air around the pool, which can irritate the throat and lungs. 

  • Skin dryness or irritation. Prolonged exposure to chlorine and chloramines can break down a protective layer on your child’s skin that produces natural oils to keep skin moisturized and healthy. When this layer is removed, the skin can become irritated, itchy and flaky. Prolonged chlorine exposure can also trigger episodes of eczema. 

  • Diarrhea. Ingesting too many chloramines can cause diarrhea in children and increase the likelihood of them ingesting the bacteria chlorine is attempting to control.

Protecting young bodies from chlorine exposure

Protecting your child against chlorine doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them out of the pool. Precautionary steps before, during and after swimming can reduce the impact of chlorine on your child’s body. 

When possible, swim in a well-maintained outdoor facility. An outdoor pool allows chlorine the opportunity to ventilate and reduces chlorine’s impact on little swimmers. If you’re able to find a pool that uses salt water, UV or ionization, these options use fewer chemicals and could further limit symptoms. 

If your child is swimming in a pool treated with chlorine, you can reduce the effects of chloramine exposure by: 

Before swimming

  • Take a 1-minute rinse shower before entering the pool. Showering your child will remove excess sweat and traces of body waste to reduce the formation of chloramines on the skin. It will also reduce the number of chloramines formed in the pool in general, protecting everyone. When your child rinses, their hair and skin will also absorb clean water, reducing their body’s capacity to absorb other chemicals.  

  • Before getting into the pool, apply sunscreen and allow to absorb for 15 min. You can then apply coconut oil to preserve the body’s natural skin pH levels and provide an extra coating for the skin’s protective layer, also reducing chlorine absorption.   

While swimming 

  • Consider having your child wear a mask or snorkel to shield their eyes. If your child swims frequently, a swim cap could reduce additional dryness in the hair.

  • Make sure your child is not emitting any body waste into the water. Take your child to the bathroom before entering the pool, and take bathroom breaks or change diapers every hour. 

After swimming 

  • Promptly remove your child’s swim suit and bathe them with soap. Make sure to also wash their swimsuit before reusing it. The longer chlorine stays on your child’s skin, the more irritation it can cause. Washing your child as quickly as you can after swimming can reduce these effects. 

  • After washing, apply a vitamin C solution to neutralize chlorine’s effect on the skin. You can make your own solution by combining 1 teaspoon of powdered vitamin C with 2 cups of filtered water and pouring it into a plastic spray bottle. 

  • If needed, apply a fragrance free ointment or cream to moisturize and hydrate the skin. 

If you’re concerned about a reaction your child is having to a pool chemical, please connect with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will be able to talk you through additional steps to take to prevent and treat reactions or see your child if needed.