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Eczema & Swimming

By Barb Nefer

Swimming is a popular activity, with people over age six visiting pools 339 million times in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of them have no problem with the water or chemicals, but some are vulnerable. The American Academy of Dermatology states that 20 percent of children and up to three percent of adults have a skin problem called eczema. Swimming can sometimes make it worse.


Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, explains that eczema-afflicted skin has a hypersensitivity reaction and breaks out in a rash. The outbreak usually includes blisters that ooze and develop a crust. It generally starts in infancy and some people outgrow it, but others struggle with it throughout adulthood. It usually starts on the scalp, face, hands and feet when the afflicted person is age two or younger. Adults generally get it on the insides of their elbows and knees, as well as their necks, hands and feet. Many of these areas are generally submerged when a person is swimming, so the water and any chemicals it contains can affect the eczema.


The exact cause of eczema is not known, but NIH states that various factors make a person more prone to develop it. It runs in families and often affects those with asthma, hay fever and other allergies. It is not contagious, so it cannot be spread to other people in a swimming pool.


There are many factors that worsen eczema. NIH cites rough material, chemicals in detergents and household products, temperature extremes, and stress as common contributing factors. Eczema can also be affected by water, environmental irritants and dry skin. Swimming pools contain chlorine and other potentially irritating chemicals that have a drying effect. This means swimming can worsen eczema.


Dr. Mark Boguniewicz, a professor of of allergy-immunology at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Colorado, states that people with eczema should not avoid swimming. They simply need to bathe or shower shortly after leaving chlorinated pools and apply a moisturizing lotion afterward.

Eczema sufferers should wear sunscreen when swimming at the beach or in outdoor pools. Dr. Boguniewicz warns that some sun blocking products irritate eczema. He recommends using sunscreen made especially for the face because it is usually mild and less likely to irritate sensitive skin.


Children and adults with severe eczema should avoid swimming because they run a higher risk of irritating it. The rash is itchy, and NIH warns that it can get raw from excessive scratching. Eventually the affected skin can get thick and leathery, which is known as lichenification. Avoid these complications by staying out of the pool until the eczema outbreak subsides.

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