Eye discharge is excess fluid that builds up in the eyes and comes out as watery or viscus fluid or as a crusty buildup.
Causes of discharge can range from an allergic reaction to an infection to a foreign body that has gotten under the eyelid.
Most eye discharge is harmless and does not need to be treated. Thicker and more colorful discharges may require medical attention because they can be a sign of a more serious eye issue.
What Is Eye Discharge?
Eye discharge, commonly referred to as gunk or eye boogers, is a mixture of mucus, exfoliated cells, oil, water and other debris that forms on the sides of the eye and worsens if there is an infection or irritation.
The discharge can be either purulent, watery or crusty. In case of infection, it usually accumulates when someone is resting or sleeping, especially during long hours at night.
Most people with conjunctivitis or other irritating eye conditions will wake up with increased gunk at the corner of their eyes.
The eye discharge can be a lot or a little, depending on the cause. A bacterial infection produces a lot of thick discharge that can glue the eyelashes temporarily, making eye opening difficult first thing in the morning.
In contrast, many other causes only produce a slight discharge or overly watery reactions that you can wipe away.
Even though some types of eye discharge are mild and pose a minimal threat to vision, seeing a doctor is essential in preventing potential complications.
Rheum is the proper name of the discharge that collects in your eyes when you sleep. It consists of mucin, thin watery mucus secreted by the conjunctiva and meibum.
Meibum, which is responsible for lubricating the eye, originates from the Meibomian glands. The eye requires rheum to remain healthy: it is a normal body secretion.
But in excess and over a long period, eye discharge indicates a potential infection that requires immediate medical attention.
Types of Eye Discharge
Different conditions are associated with different types of eye mucus. Some indicate a more serious problem that requires immediate attention and possible treatment. Others are innocuous and require no medical attention.
Types of discharge include:
- Watery discharge
- Gray or green mucus
- Yellow discharge
- Crusty discharge
- White mucus
- Dry mucus
This discharge consists of small amounts of mucus mixed with watery tears. It is mainly associated with pink eye, a condition caused by viruses. Exposure to irritants also stimulates the secretion of the watery discharge as a protective mechanism.
Watery Discharges with Yellow or White Balls
White or yellow mucus balls form around the puncta when the nasolacrimal sac responsible for draining tears gets infected. Facial pain, swelling between the eyelid and nose and redness are usually associated with this kind of discharge.
Gray or Green Mucus
A thick eye discharge, gray or green, indicates a potentially serious infection caused by pus-forming bacteria. Individuals with this thick mucus often wake up with the lashes and lid stuck shut by the discharge.
Yellow eye mucus is usually associated with small bumps on the eyelid called styes. The yellow discharge occurs when glands in the eyelid get clogged and infected with bacteria.
Blepharitis causes thick crusty eye discharge with thickened lids and dandruff-like scales on the lashes.
Typically characterized by its stringiness, white eye discharge results from allergic reactions such as conjunctivitis. Exposure to allergens induces the secretion of sticky material from the eye glands. Secretions accumulate under the lids to protect the eye against further injury to the offending agent.
If you have dry eyes, you might wake up with particles of dry mucus at the corner of your eyes. This occurs from low water content in the tears, causing rapid evaporation and drying of the secreted mucus.
Causes of Eye Discharge
Different conditions cause different types of boogers. But some forms are more severe than others. Here are the potential causes of eye discharge and their accompanying symptoms:
- Bacterial conjunctivitis
- Viral conjunctivitis
- Eyelid cellulitis
- Foreign bodies
Characterized by thick green or grey discharge, bacterial conjunctivitis causes sticking of eyelids together upon waking up. The diseases can affect one or both eyes. Redness and pain often accompany the discharge, but vision is usually spared.
With viral conjunctivitis, the eye produces a watery discharge without pus in most cases. The eyes usually appear pink with swelling, pain, and a foreign body sensation. Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious.
A precise balance exists between tear production and drainage. A blockage in the drainage system, such as tear duct blockage, causes excessive watery tears with the subsequent flow down the face.
More common in childhood, tear duct obstruction can precipitate bacterial infections that form small amounts of mucus.
Orbital cellulitis is a severe eye infection that requires immediate treatment. Bacteria usually infect the eyelid and the surrounding tissues, causing painful, red swelling. It can be a complication of bacterial conjunctivitis or ethmoid sinus infection.
Sawdust, dirt, pollen and other small particles can enter the eye and get stuck under the lids. If the material remains in the eye for an extended period, the eye responds by producing a discharge.
Typically, the pus secondary to the foreign body does not respond to conventional antibiotic therapy. A feeling of something in the eye usually accompanies discharge secondary to a foreign body.
Small amounts of dried mucus collected in the corner of the eye is a normal process associated with irritants. You do not need any treatment as the discharge usually resolves spontaneously.
Small amounts of eye discharge are harmless in most cases, requiring no medical intervention. For instance, watery mucus associated with pink eye usually resolves itself in a few days. On the other hand, eye discharge of varying consistency, volume, and color necessitates evaluation by a medical professional as it can indicate a serious underlying condition.
The treatment for eye discharge depends on the cause. Home remedies alone can alleviate mild forms of discharge while the other types require treatment with antibiotics.
Home remedies, such as warm compresses, help to relieve swelling and itchiness often associated with eye discharge. If your eyelids are stuck together by gunk, dip a washcloth in water and place it over the affected eye for a few minutes, then wipe away the discharge gently.
Over-the-counter antihistamines can help alleviate the symptoms associated with discharge due to allergen exposure.
For moderate to severe cases of bacterial or viral eye infections, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic or antiviral eye ointments or drops. Eye discharge because of sexually transmitted diseases like Chlamydia and gonorrhea require systemic antibiotics.
When to Call a Doctor
Eye discharge can have many implications. In most cases, the slight watery mucus discharge resolves itself or with minor home remedies such as warm compressions.
However, if you notice a change in consistency, thickness and eye discharge color, you need to see an eye doctor promptly. Conditions like bacterial conjunctivitis and blepharitis can interfere with vision if not treated promptly.
Is That Morning “Eye Gunk” Normal? (January 2019). Utah University: Health.
Conjunctivitis. (August 2021). StatPearls.
Conjunctivitis. A Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Treatment. (October 2013). JAMA Network.
Last Updated April 4, 2022
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