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 Symptoms
Depending on what is causing the eye discharge, additional symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Burning Eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Dry eyes
- Sore Eyes
- Watery eyes
- Red bloodshot eyes
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
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.
Discharge is often associated with an eye condition called conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis may be infectious (caused by a viral or bacterial infection), or sterile (caused by allergy, or some other irritant). When conjunctivitis is caused by an infection, it is commonly referred to as pinkeye. Pinkeye usually begins in the protective conjunctival membrane that covers the eye, but it may move aggressively into the eyelids and eyelashes or begin infecting the layers of the cornea. Most pinkeye is caused by a virus, and the body’s own defense mechanisms will eventually fight the infection off within seven to ten days. Bacterial infections, by contrast, may lead to other, more serious eye conditions such as corneal ulcers, cellulitis, or enophthalmitis. Proper diagnosis is key, so if you are experiencing pain, eye swelling, or changes in your vision along with any discharge, see your eye care professional immediately.
Wearing old or dirty contact lenses is also a common cause of discharge. Contact lenses that are old are harmful in many ways. First, the lenses themselves may be contaminated with bacteria or virus organisms that embed themselves into the lens or case material. Second, deposits of protein and oils from your normal tear flow build up on the contact lens surface and are no longer recognized by your immune system as normal. This causes your body to react to these deposits with an inflammation that includes discharge. Third, old contact lenses don’t transmit as much oxygen to the front of the eyes, thereby causing hypoxia and leaving your eyes even more susceptible to opportunistic infections
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.
Replace and care for your contact lenses according to your eye doctor’s instructions. Remember to replace your storage case regularly as well.
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