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  • Writer's pictureMaria Cholakova

What to Do If Salty or Dirty Water Gets Into Your Eyes?

Accidents happen, and sometimes we may find ourselves in situations where our eyes come into contact with salty or dirty water. Whether it's from swimming in the ocean, being caught in a rainstorm, or accidentally splashing oneself, exposure to these substances can cause discomfort and potential health risks.

We will discuss first aid and what to do if salty or dirty water gets into your eyes, and how to prevent future incidents.

Sea Water in the Eyes

salty water seawater

Seawater getting into your eyes is definitely not a recipe for a good time on the beach. The salt, sand, bacteria, and microorganisms in it are huge eye aggressors, and sometimes they can even be dangerous.

Some of the issues that can arise from exposure to seawater in the eyes are:

  • Eye irritation

  • Corneal abrasions (scratches of the cornea)

  • Eye infections

  • Eye allergies

Sea water can irritate the delicate tissues of the eyes, leading to redness, itching, and stinging. This is due to the high salt content in seawater, which can cause dehydration of the eyes and surrounding tissues.

In addition, the sand and other debris found in seawater can scratch the surface of the cornea, causing a corneal abrasion. This can be extremely painful and may cause blurry vision, sensitivity to light, and redness in the affected eye.

Let's not forget, seawater can contain bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that can cause infections in the eyes. One common infection that can result from exposure to contaminated seawater is conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye.

A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times
A drop of seawater, magnified 25 times by David Littschwager

If you get caught off guard by a wave while at the beach and inadvertently gulp down some seawater, the unpleasant flavor you experience is not solely due to salt. As evidenced by photographer David Littschwager's impressive image, a single droplet of seawater magnified 25 times can expose a diverse community of organisms, including crab larvae, diatoms, bacteria, fish eggs, zooplankton, and worms. Nice, right?

And of course, for people with allergies, exposure to seawater can trigger an allergic reaction in the eyes. Symptoms include itching, redness, swelling, and extensive eye-watering.

First Aid Tips

  1. Avoid touching and rubbing the eyes

  2. Rinse your eyes out with clean lukewarm water

  3. Seek a doctor's attention if the irritation still persists

First and foremost, if you come into contact with salty water, go to rinse your eyes out immediately. Use clean, lukewarm water to flush them out, for at least 10 minutes. Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes, as this can cause further irritation or accidental injury.

If your eyes are still red, irritated, or painful after rinsing them out, seek medical attention. You may have sustained an injury or developed an infection from exposure to sandy and salty water.

What if you are wearing contact lenses and seawater gets into your eyes?

contact lenses
First rule of contact lenses and water: DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES WHEN SWIMMING IN WATER. EVER.

Sea water can cause problems for people who wear contact lenses, as the salt, bacteria, and debris in the water can get trapped under the lenses and cause irritation or infection. In addition, contact lenses may fall out or displace by the force of the waves or by rubbing the eyes, leading to discomfort and potential damage to the eyes.

For these reasons, it is advisable not to wear contact lenses at the beach in the first place.

But if you already did and you have a burning or itchy sensation after getting salty water in your eyes, you need to remove the contacts. Instead of touching your eyes to do that, rinse them with water and follow all the abovementioned instructions for first aid. The lenses would probably come off with the water stream.

If you have artificial tears with you, the drops might help to bring you some relief after the water rinse and also to remove residual contaminants.

In case you already tried to remove your contact lenses by hand and were unsuccessful because it feels like scratching or brings you severe pain, please do not touch the eye anymore. Go seek medical attention immediately. Eye doctors often get patients that scratched their own cornea by trying to remove a contact lens, that was not in the eye.

Dirty Water in the Eyes

dirty water

Exposure to dirty water can lead to a number of problems with the eyes. Dirty water can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that can cause infections, inflammation, and other unpleasant complications.

Here are some of the issues that can arise from exposure to dirty water in the eyes:

  • Eye irritation

  • Eye infections

  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

  • Corneal ulcers

Dirty water usually contains particles that cause eye irritation, such as redness, itching, and stinging. This is due to the presence of foreign substances that come into contact with the delicate eye tissues. Exposure to dirty water can also lead to infections brought on by bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms. These infections can cause symptoms such as redness, discharge, pain, and sensitivity to light.

Conjunctivitis is the most common infection you can get from exposure to dirty water. It is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye). Pink eye causes redness, itching, discharge, and crusting of the eyelids.

Corneal ulcers are open sores on the cornea, the clear outer layer of the eye. They are caused when the bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms from the dirty water penetrate deeper into the corneal layers and cause a defect that is not easy to heal. Symptoms of corneal ulcers to look out for include pain, redness, discharge, and sensitivity to light.

First Aid Tips

  1. Avoid touching and rubbing the eyes

  2. Rinse your eyes out with clean lukewarm water

  3. Seek a doctor's attention if the irritation still persists

If you accidentally get dirty water in your eyes, take immediate action to avoid any potential damage or infection. The first thing to do is to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes, as this can make the irritation worse and potentially spread any harmful bacteria or contaminants. Next, rinse your eyes out with clean water under a steady and gentle stream for 10-15 minutes. Make sure the water is not too hot or too cold, as this can also cause further irritation.

If the irritation still persists or if you experience any pain, redness, or swelling, seek medical attention from a doctor or other healthcare professional. They can examine your eyes and recommend appropriate treatment, which may include prescription eye drops (with antibiotics) or ointments to soothe the irritation and prevent infection.

Preventing Exposure to Salty or Dirty Water

preventive eyewear goggles

While accidents can happen, there are steps you can take to prevent exposure to salty or dirty water in the first place. Check out these tips:

  • Wear goggles or a mask. If you are swimming or diving in the ocean or other bodies of water, consider wearing goggles or a mask to protect your eyes from saltwater, sand, and other debris.

  • Use protective eyewear. If you are working in an environment where you are near chemicals, dust, or other irritants, wear protective eyewear to protect yourself from exposure to dirty or contaminated water.

  • Avoid touching your eyes. Avoid touching your eyes with dirty or wet hands, as this can transfer bacteria and contaminants to your eyes.

  • Remove contact lenses. If you wear contact lenses, remove them before swimming in the ocean to avoid trapping salt and debris under the lenses. Consider wearing prescription goggles instead.

  • Seek medical attention promptly. If you experience redness, irritation, or pain in your eyes after exposure to salty or dirty water, seek medical attention promptly to prevent complications and ensure proper treatment.

Getting salty or dirty water in your eyes can be an unpleasant experience, but with the right knowledge and quick action, you can help prevent any lasting damage or discomfort. Learn more about how to take care of your eyes in the Ophthalmology24 medical blog for patients.


All medical facts were checked by Atanas Bogoev M.D.

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