Chlorine Rash

Chlorine rash is a skin reaction that some people have when they are exposed to the chemical whilst swimming in a chlorinated pool, using a hot tub or using certain household cleaning products.

So what is chlorine and why are some people allergic to it?

What is chlorine?

Chlorine is a chemical that is commonly used in a very dilute form to disinfect the water in swimming pools and hot tubs. Chlorine kills common bacteria and germs that could otherwise be harmful to people entering the water. Chlorine is also widely used in certain household cleaning products.

When chlorine enters the body as a result of breathing, swallowing or skin contact, it reacts with water to produce acids. The acids are corrosive and damage cells in the body on contact.

What is chlorine rash?

Chlorine can be very drying to the skin, which may lead to irritation. If you suffer from chlorine rash, you are not necessarily allergic to chlorine, just very sensitive to it.

Chlorine rash occurs most commonly after you have been swimming in a chlorinated pool or used a hot tub, especially if the levels of the chemical in the water were too high.

Symptoms of chlorine rash

Chlorine skin sensitivity can present with the following symptoms:

  • Reddening of the skin
  • Inflammation, itching or tenderness at the contact site
  • Skin rash or lesions
  • Scaling or crusting of the skin

In severe cases of chlorine rash, hives may develop. Hives are raised, reddened areas on the skin that are itchy and tender.

Asthma sufferers and those with EIB or allergic rhinitis may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Coughing after exercise or when laughing
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Tight feeling in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy, congested nose

In very rare cases, a severe allergy to chlorine can cause a condition called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. This is a very dangerous condition that can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

Anaphylaxis usually occurs within a few minutes of exposure. Symptoms include any of the above and:

  • Swelling of the mouth and throat
  • Confusion and lightheadedness
  • Collapse and loss of consciousness

Chlorine rash versus swimmer’s itch

Chlorine rash and swimmer’s itch are both conditions that are generally related to swimming. However, swimmer’s itch is caused by a reaction to microscopic parasites that live in untreated fresh water, whereas chlorine rash is caused by a specific sensitivity to chlorine.

Swimmer’s itch (cercarial dermatitis) occurs when the water parasites burrow into the swimmer’s skin, causing a rash of tiny red pimples across the affected area.

Differentiating between chlorine rash and swimmer’s itch will depend on where the affected person has been swimming. Swimming pools generally have chlorine added to them, whereas fresh or salt water does not. If a swimming is properly maintained and treated with the correct amount of chlorine, there should not be parasites present.

Also, you are more likely to experience swimmer’s itch if you swim in shallow fresh or salt water near to the shore. If you think you are suffering from swimmer’s itch, you should consult your family doctor.

What causes chlorine rash?

Not all swimmers experience chlorine rash. If you swim infrequently, you are not likely to develop this condition unless your skin is especially sensitive to the chemical. However, people who are repeatedly exposed to chlorine may develop chlorine rash.

The body’s immune system sometimes identifies chlorine as a “foreign body” or invader in the same way that it would a virus or bacterium. The immune system then tries to repel the perceived threat and a sensitivity reaction occurs, manifesting in the symptoms described above. Also, chlorine strips natural oils from the skin, dehydrating it and making it more susceptible to becoming irritated and inflamed.

Those most likely to suffer from chlorine rash include lifeguards, swimmers and professional cleaners.

If you are the one responsible for maintaining your swimming pool or hot tub, be sure to use the correct levels of chlorine dosage when treating the water. If the levels of chlorine are too concentrated, you risk triggering chlorine rash.

Chlorine rash treatment

Most cases of chlorine rash can be self-treated by using over-the-counter products. Effective treatments include corticosteroid creams, although you should avoid using these on your face, as there is a danger that the product could be ingested via the eyes or mouth. Prolonged use of hydrocortisone creams can also thin the skin.

If you develop hives, you may take a drug such as Benadryl, which contains diphenhydramine. Non-prescription body washes and lotions are also available that will strip away any residual chlorine from the skin while soothing any inflammation that you may be experiencing.

Stick to using chlorine rash-specific preparations and avoid using lotions that are perfumed, as this can exacerbate the irritation that is caused by the chlorine.

Medical attention for chlorine rash

Under normal circumstances, chlorine rash will resolve following self-treatment with an appropriate non-prescription product. However, if you experience breathing difficulties or hives that do not go away, you should consult your GP as a matter of urgency.

If the chlorine rash does not respond to over-the-counter treatments, you should talk to your doctor. You may require stronger prescription treatments to resolve the problem.

Preventing chlorine rash

There are a number of simple preventative measures that can be taken to avoid chlorine rash.

  • If you experience chlorine rash on your hands as a result of exposure to household cleaning products, switch to using eco-friendly, chemical-free brands that do not contain chlorine.
  • If you must use household cleaning products that contain chlorine, always wear rubber gloves when handling them. Avoid leaning over sinks and bathtubs when hot water is mixed with chlorine – the steam produced can cause breathing difficulties.
  • After swimming or using a hot tub containing chlorine, take a shower or bath.
  • Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to areas that are irritated before you enter a pool to create a protective barrier between your skin and the water.

Avoid swimming or using chlorine-containing cleaning chemicals for a while until the chlorine rash has cleared up. This will allow your skin chance to heal. Your immune system will also settle down during this time, reducing the likelihood of a reaction next time you are exposed to chlorine.

Take aways:

  • Chlorine rash is a sensitivity reaction to chlorine contained in swimming pool or hot tub water, or in household cleaning products.
  • Chlorine rash presents as a red, itchy rash, or hives. People with conditions such as asthma may suffer breathing difficulties when exposed to chlorine.
  • Chlorine rash can be treated by using over-the-counter corticosteroid creams.
  • Prevent chlorine rash by showering after swimming.