Eye Health Central

Eye Discharge: What Is It And How To Get Rid Of It?

A Quick Look At Eye Discharge

eye discharge

If you’ve ever noticed crust on the sides of your eyes in the morning, then you’re not alone. A bit of morning eye discharge - sometimes called sleep- is extremely normal and is actually a positive sign that your eyes are producing plenty of protective mucus. Although eye discharge is unsightly and uncomfortable, usually it’s nothing to worry about. There are, however, a few cases where eye discharge could signal a more serious underlying condition.

In this piece, we’ll take a closer look at what eye discharge is and when you should see a doctor to address the issue. We’ll also go over a few tips you could use to prevent eye discharge.


What Is Eye Discharge?

Officially known as “rheum,” eye discharge is a mixture of tears, oils, and cells. Our eyes naturally make this mucus layer 24/7, but our tears wash it away during the day every time we blink.

When our eyes are closed during sleep, our tear films aren’t rehydrated. This causes all of the mucus that’s produced by the conjunctiva to dry up and settle in the canthi, the corners of the eyes.

Eye mucus plays a critical role in both keeping our tear films from evaporating and expelling foreign substances. For this reason, morning rheum is also usually composed of tiny debris we’ve picked up throughout the day like pollutants, smoke, or dust.


Common Reasons For Excessive Rheum

A little bit of crusty rheum in the morning is a common and, generally, benign symptom. If eye discharge is excessive, wet, or accompanied by other symptoms, however, then it could be a sign of something more serious. Let’s explore a few of the main reasons people experience excessive eye discharge.


Pink Eye-Related Discharge

Pus discharge from the eyes is a hallmark symptom of one of the most common eye infections: conjunctivitis. More commonly known as “pink eye,” this infection is usually caused by a bad bacteria, allergen, or virus. Besides experiencing serious eye discharge in the morning, other symptoms of conjunctivitis include 

  • Scratchy eyes
  • Red eyes 
  • Burning sensation in the eye
  • Increased tearing

It’s not uncommon for conjunctivitis patients to wake up with encrusted or wet pus on their eyelashes. Sometimes these “eye boogers” are a yellowish-green hue and if they dry out can seal your eyes shut. This is especially the case if you have a bacterial form of conjunctivitis.

Since eye discharge in conjunctivitis cases usually indicates a viral or bacterial infection, you should see an optometrist or doctor as soon as possible for treatment. After examining your eyes, you’ll most likely be prescribed a course of antivirals or antibacterial medication. Taking your medication as prescribed and drinking plenty of water will help you recover faster.

Thankfully, conjunctivitis usually goes away after about a week. While you’re recovering, stop the spread of this infectious disease by frequently changing all bed sheets and towels. You should also stop wearing contact lenses until your disease has completely cleared up.

The best way to get rid of the pus in the morning is to dampen a clean face cloth with warm water and gently pat your eyes. You could also use a wet cotton ball to get the gunk out. It’s especially important to clear away excessive rheum if you’re using an eye drop medication because the antibiotics will only work on clean eyes.


Greater Eye Discharge For Dry Eye Syndrome

If your eyes feel noticeably crusty almost every morning, then you might be suffering from a condition known as dry eye syndrome. People who have this chronic condition often experience symptoms like eye redness, itchiness, and dryness throughout the day.

Although doctors aren’t sure why certain people are more prone to dry eye syndrome, most believe it has something to do with the amount of mucus the eyes are able to produce. Eyes that don’t have strong enough tear layers can’t prevent tears from evaporating, which leads to dryness-related symptoms.

The most common way to deal with dry eye symptoms is to use a re-wetting drop when symptoms arise. Most doctors advise, however, that patients only use these over-the-counter drops occasionally to avoid forming a dependency.

Another temporary solution for dry eye syndrome is to use a warm compress or a wet towel to gently pat your eyes. This is especially effective in the morning if you suffer from extra eye discharge.

Although these short-term therapies are beneficial, you should also try to incorporate more long-term solutions to reduce the impact of dry eye syndrome. These strategies include taking regular breaks from electronic screens, walking in the sunlight every day, and eating plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, and fish rich in omega-3.


Contact Lenses And Eye Discharge

As noted above, our eyes don’t get as much moisture during sleep because our eyes are closed. This is especially the case for people who wear contact lenses to bed.

Even if your lenses are approved for overnight wear, doctors strongly advise patients to remove lenses before bedtime. Wearing lenses overnight can increase the risk of eye discharge, and cause your cornea to become dry.

To reduce the risk of infections and eye dryness, optometrists advise patients to consider wearing daily disposable lenses (aka dailies). There’s now scientific evidence that patients who wear dailies are far less likely to get keratitis than those who wear multi-day lenses. Also, many manufacturers produce dailies with increased wettability, which is great news for dry eye sufferers.


What To Do About Infant Eye Discharge?

It’s important for parents to keep a lookout for eye discharge in infants. Up to 10% of children are born with blocked tear ducts (tubes between the eyes and nasal cavity). If this is the case, you’ll notice your child’s eyes are frequently moist during the day and they can wake up with a large amount of wet eye discharge.

Once you notice these symptoms, immediately schedule an appointment with an optometrist or family doctor to rule out an infection. Thankfully, most of these cases resolve on their own as the child’s tear ducts mature. In the meantime, your doctor will most likely advise you to wipe the mucus away from your child’s eyes with wet cotton balls or clean towels.


A Few Tips On Preventing Eye Discharge

Eye discharge is a natural function of the body, hence there’s no way you could completely eliminate it. The best things you could do to reduce morning rheum are all related to increasing eye hydration. Here are a few easy strategies to avoid eye discharge that you could put into practice today.


Reduce Blue Light Exposure

To avoid drying out your eyes before bed, shut off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. Reducing your nighttime exposure to blue light will keep your eyes as moist as they can possibly be before you hit the hay.

When using electronic devices during the day, be sure to look 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds at 20 minute intervals. This simple strategy called the 20-20-20 rule, will also help naturally rehydrate your eyes.


Increase Hydration

Speaking of hydration, recent studies show two-thirds of the British public isn’t drinking enough water. Dehydration can manifest in symptoms like dry eyes and crusty eye discharge, so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to ward off dry eyes.

In addition to drinking plenty of water, it’s equally important to avoid drinking too many dehydrating beverages like coffee, soda, and alcohol. All of these drinks will reduce the amount of tears your eyes can naturally produce, leading to increased dry eye symptoms.

If you’re not a fan of drinking plain water, then try to incorporate more hydrating beverages throughout the day. For instance, consider drinking herbal teas like peppermint, chamomile, or lemongrass. Another good idea is to eat a diet rich in hydrating fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumber. For those who need a little fizz, try drinking plain seltzer water rather than sugary sodas.


Eye Discharge: An Uncomfortable Truth

Morning eye discharge is an inconvenient fact of life. No matter how well-hydrated you are, you’re still likely to deal with a bit of dry rheum in the morning. Thankfully, most cases of eye discharge are harmless and don’t require a doctor’s visit.

Wet, sticky, and/or green eye discharge, however, usually indicates an eye infection and requires immediate care. You should err on the side of caution if you experience eye discharge alongside symptoms like eye pain, sensitivity to light, or red eyes.

If you have any questions or concerns about your eye discharge, please schedule an appointment with a certified optometrist or family doctor.


Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 27 Apr 2023, Last modified: 15 Feb 2024