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Medically reviewed by Sharon Copeland on 16 March 2021
What is eye discharge?
Eye discharge (sometimes referred to as rheum or 'sleep in your eyes') consists of oil, mucus, skin cells and other particles that have accumulated in the corner of your eye during sleep. Sometimes it's wet, slimy and sticky, while other times it can be dry, hard and crusty.
The discharge is one of the protective functions in your eyes that removes waste products and other potentially harmful particles from the tear film. It shouldn't be confused with an eye infection, although infections do have similar characteristics. An abnormal amount of discharge, coupled with itchiness and redness, could be a sign of infection, especially in cases of conjunctivitis.
Is eye discharge normal?
It is perfectly normal to wake up with eye discharge in the morning. The discharge is a combination of tears, oil, skin cells and debris gathering near the tear ducts while you're sleeping. Eye discharge is produced because you don't blink while you are sleeping.
Excessive eye discharge accompanied by symptoms such as sensitivity to light, blurry vision or pain can indicate severe eye disease, which can lead to vision loss. You should contact your optician immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.
What is eye discharge called?
Other terms for eye discharge are sleep, rheum, mucus, crust and sand.
What causes eye discharge?
Your eye produces mucus throughout the day, but this removed as your eyes produce tears which coat your eyes when you blink. When you're asleep, you don't blink. Lack of blinking allows discharge to sometimes collect in the corners of your eyes or along the lash line.
Where does eye mucus come from?
Eye discharge is a combination of a watery mucus produced in the conjunctiva and an oily substance in the meibomian glands called meibum.
Why is mucus coming out of my eye?
Mucus from the eye is often a result of sleep; however, if there is a change in consistency and colour, this could be a sign of an infection.
What causes excessive eye mucus?
Excessive eye mucus is often associated with eye conditions such as:
Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
Abnormal eye mucus is often a symptom of conjunctivitis, in addition to itchiness, a gritty sensation, irritation and red eyes. Different types of eye mucus accompany various types of conjunctivitis. In severe cases, it can form a crust along you lash line and cause your eyes to seal shut temporarily.
Eye discharge is usually watery with allergic conjunctivitis. This is trigged by allergens like pollen dust, it can also be a reaction to contact lens solutions, eye drops or make-up, this is not contagious and always affects both eyes.
Eye discharge resulting from bacterial conjunctivitis is typically thicker and more pus like than viral pink eye and is commonly yellow, green or even grey in colour. Often the sticky mattering will cause your eyelids to feel complexly glued shut upon waking in the morning.
Viral conjunctivitis produces eye discharge which sometimes contains a white or yellow mucus but is usually clear. Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious and is caused by a virus such as the common cold or herpes simplex virus. Eye discharge associated with viral pink eye typically is clear and watery, or it may include white or slightly yellow mucus.
Dacryocystitis is caused by a blocked tear duct which can lead to inflammation and infection of the lacrimal sac. Symptoms include a sticky discharge as well as extreme discomfort and redness.
There are several ways to lower eye pressure, including the following:
Meibomian gland dysfunction
Meibomian gland dysfunction is a malfunctioning of the oil glands in the eyelid. It can cause eye discharge of a foamy nature in addition to eyelid crusting, pus-like fluid and other painful symptoms.
The cause of this is usually an infected eyelash follicle. An infected eyelash follicle results in a clogged meibomian gland resulting in swollen eyelids and an unpleasant sensation on the eye. Abnormal eye discharge often accompanies this and features yellow pus.
Eye injuries cause watery discharge and sometimes even pus or blood in the eye. Subconjunctival hemorrhage occurs after an eye injury, see your optician or eye hospital immediately for treatment. All eye injuries should be treated as a medical emergency.
If you wear contact lenses, you are more likely to find more sleep in your eyes. Excess eye discharge can be a symptom of a contact lens-related eye infection or dry eyes as a result of contact lens wear.
One should treat a corneal ulcer right away to prevent complete vision loss. Eye discharge from a corneal ulcer can be extreme, clouding the cornea and damaging your vision.
Other Eye Conditions that can cause abnormal eye discharge include:
- Acanthamoeba Keratitis
- Dry eye
- Eyes herpes
- Fungal Keratitis
How do you treat eye discharge?
Small amounts of discharge are harmless and relatively healthy. Worse cases of eye discharge may be a sign of a bacterial infection and other eye conditions. Sometimes, the crust becomes so hard; your eyes will stick together and hurt as you try to open them.
The best antidote is to soak a clean wash cloth in warm water and gently rub this along your eyes until the crust softens. You can also use warm compresses such as our Thera-Pearl Eye Mask to soothe various eye problems that can cause eye discharge.
The discharge often has a whitish or slightly yellowish appearance and can be washed away easily.
If eye discharge is the result of an eye infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics or antiviral eye drops by your eye care specialist.
Avoid or manage eye discharge
- Avoid touching your eyes as this can cause the infection to spread
- Wash your hands regularly
- If wearing contact lenses, remove your lenses immediately and speak to your optician. Daily disposables are an option if you're not already wearing them as you are less likely to get contact lens-related discharge with these
- Wear glasses
- Get rid of any cosmetics that are likely to be contaminated such as mascara and eyeliner
Quick links:A guide to eye infections
A guide to swollen eyelids
A guide to blurry vision