Eye Discharge

Eye discharge is a yellowish, sticky, crusty, substance that can sometimes make your eyes feel like they have been glued shut. It can be temporary—such as when you wake up in the morning—or persistent, in which case medical attention should be considered. Usually eye discharge is a harmless part of your body’s natural defense system, but some cases are serious. Eye discharge can be present in both children and adults, and it affects males and females equally.

Eye Discharge

Eye Discharge Symptoms

Depending on what is causing the eye discharge, additional symptoms may include:

Occasionally symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches, nasal congestion, and sneezing may accompany the eye discharge. This is typically seen in persons with bacterial or viral infections.

Causes of Eye Discharge

There are many different reasons why your eye produces discharge. Most causes are harmless, but some can be the result of a more serious condition. The most common occurrence is waking up with discharge in the corners of your eyes. This discharge is a sign that some form of bacteria, either from make-up or extra oily skin, has tried to make its way into your eye while you were sleeping. A bacterial infection can lead to a more serious condition like blepharitis, which is an inflammation at the base of your eyelashes that produces a thick, yellowish pus filled with bacteria-fighting white blood cells. People who are sick with cold or flu tend to have more eye discharge. A sticky, yellowish discharge that seals your eyes shut is the body’s natural defense against conditions such as pinkeye. Pinkeye is a viral infection that attacks the membrane that covers the eyeball. A thinner, clearer, and less-crusty discharge could be the result of allergies or a cold, and it usually goes away once the irritating factors have been eliminated. Pollen, gusty winds, dry eyes, or an eyelash can also cause irritation, which will also lead to discharge.

Other more serious causes of eye discharge can be associated with medical conditions such as conjunctivitis and corneal ulcers. A corneal ulcer is an open sore in the outer layer of the cornea, and it is often caused by a bacterial infection. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation or infection of the membrane that lines the eyelids. Both of these conditions can lead to more serious eye problems, so if you are experiencing pain, eye swelling, or visual changes as well as eye discharge, you should go see your eye care professional immediately. Additional causes of eye discharge may include:

  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Eye infection
  • Dry eyes
  • Allergic reaction
  • Hay fever
  • Orbital cellulitis

Diagnosing Eye Discharge

Eye discharge is usually harmless and temporary, but sometimes it is an indicator of a more serious problem. To diagnose you, your eye doctor will ask you questions about the discharge, its color and consistency, how often it occurs and when, what other symptoms you are having, and whether you have any medical conditions such as allergies that could be contributing to the problem. Depending on your answers and what your eye doctor discovers from your eye examination, tests may be administered to determine the underlying cause. For example, if a corneal ulcer is found, a culture may be taken to study in the laboratory to determine what is causing the ulcer.

Treatment of Eye Discharge

Depending on why your eyes are producing the discharge, there are different treatments available. Some of these can be performed at home, and others require a visit to your doctor. If the discharge is severe, ask your doctor about oral antibiotics or antibiotic eye drops to reduce the symptoms. Other steps you can take that are considered “at-home” methods include using a warm washcloth if your eyes are glued shut. The warmth of the washcloth will loosen the crust and allow you to open your eyes.

Throwing away old make-up, especially make-up that was used while you had an infection in your eyes, will greatly reduce the chances of the infection coming back. Contaminated cosmetics are a leading cause of eye infection, and if they are not thrown away you will be reapplying the bacteria every time you use them.

You can also remove oil from your eyelids by washing them with baby shampoo or some other mild detergent. Massaging the lids with a downward motion will help push out oils. Upper lids should be massaged and patted down with a tissue to remove the excess oil. Increasingly, eye doctors recommend commercial eyelid scrubs that can be applied if you’re wary of using a homemade solution. Avoid sharing towels and washcloths if possible. This can spread bacteria.

Eye Discharge Complications

Eye discharge may cause complications such as:

  • Blurry vision
  • Spread of infection
  • Problems with cornea
  • Loss of vision
  • Dry, itchy eyes
  • Inability to open eyelids in the morning
  • Red bloodshot eyes

Talking to Your Eye Doctor

Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about eye discharge:

  • Is my eye discharge a sign of an underlying condition?
  • Are there any over-the-counter products that will benefit me?
  • Which type of eye drops should I be using?
  • How often should I expect to deal with eye discharge?
  • Do I need prescription-strength medication to relieve the symptoms?
  • If treatment is not working, how long should I wait to contact you again?
  • What other treatment options will we explore if the first option fails?

Did you know…viral conjunctivitis (which produces a white, watery discharge) takes approximately six months to cure?

  • H. Winter, MD, S. Moore, MD, K. Yoder, MD “Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery” (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 235
  • Daily News & Analysis, Have eye flu? Avoid Steroids, June 25, 2011 http://www.dnaindia.com
  • J. Lavine, MD “The Eye Care Sourcebook” (Contemporary Books, 2001) 98-99
This article was last updated on 07/2014