Eye discharge, or “sleep” in your eyes, is a combination of mucus, oil, skin cells and other debris that accumulates in the
corner of your eye while you sleep. It can be wet and sticky or dry and crusty, depending on how much of the liquid in
the discharge has evaporated. Other slang terms used to describe eye discharge include eye boogers, eye mattering, eye
gunk, eye pus and goopy eyes. Sometimes called “rheum,” eye discharge has a protective function, removing waste
products and potentially harmful debris from the tear film and the front surface of your eyes. Your eyes produce mucus
throughout the day, but a continuous thin film of tears bathes your eyes when you blink, flushing out the rheum before it
hardens in your eyes. When you’re asleep — and not blinking — eye discharge collects and crusts in the corners of your
eyes and sometimes along the lash line, hence the term “sleep” in your eyes. Some sleep in your eyes upon waking is
normal, but excessive eye discharge, especially if it’s green or yellow in color and accompanied by blurry vision, light
sensitivity or eye pain, can indicate a serious eye infection or eye disease and should be promptly examined by your eye
Where does eye mucus come from?
Eye discharge (rheum) is a function of your tear film and a necessary component of good eye health. It primarily consists
of thin, watery mucus produced by the conjunctiva (called mucin), and meibum — an oily substance secreted by the
meibomian glands which helps keep your eyes lubricated between blinks.
Causes of eye discharge
Sleep in your eyes usually isn’t cause for alarm, but if you notice a difference in consistency, color and quantity of eye
gunk, it could indicate an eye infection or disease. Common eye conditions associated with abnormal eye discharge
• Conjunctivitis. Eye discharge is a common symptom of conjunctivitis (pink eye), an inflammation of the
conjunctiva — the thin membrane that lines the “white” of the eye (sclera) and the inner surface of the eyelids.
• In addition to itchy, gritty, irritated and red eyes, conjunctivitis typically is accompanied by white, yellow or
green eye mucus which can form a crust along the lash line while you sleep.
• In some cases, eyelid crusting can be so severe that it temporarily seals your eye shut.
• 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, but may include a white or light
yellow mucus component.
• Bacterial conjunctivitis, as the name indicates, is caused by bacterial infection and can be sight-threatening if not
treated promptly. Eye discharge is usually thicker and more pus-like (purulent) in consistency than viral pink
eye, and is commonly yellow, green or even gray. Often, the sticky mattering will cause your eyelids to feel
completely glued shut upon waking in the morning.
• Allergic conjunctivitis is triggered by allergens — pollen, dander, dust and other common irritants that cause eye
allergies. It also can be caused by an allergic reaction to chemical pollutants, makeup, contact lens solutions, and
eye drops. Eye discharge associated with allergic conjunctivitis is typically watery.Unlike viral and bacterial pink
eye, allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious and always affects both eyes.
• Other eye infections. In addition to conjunctivitis, there are many eye infections that cause abnormal eye
discharge. These include: eye herpes (a recurrent viral eye infection), fungal keratitis (a rare but serious
inflammation of the cornea) and Acanthamoeba keratitis (a potentially blinding infection typically caused by
poor contact lens hygiene or swimming while wearing contacts). Discharge from an eye infection varies
considerably — it could be clear and watery or thick, green and sticky — so make sure you see your eye doctor
promptly for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
• Blepharitis. A chronic disorder of the eyelids, blepharitis describes either inflammation of the eyelash hair
follicles or abnormal oil production from the meibomian glands at the inner edge of the eyelids. A related
condition called Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) can cause foamy eye discharge, eyelid crusting, as well as
yellow or green eye pus, among other irritating and often painful symptoms.
• Stye. A stye is a clogged meibomian gland at the base of the eyelid, typically caused by an infected eyelash
follicle. Also called a hordeolum, it resembles a pimple on the eyelid margin and is commonly accompanied by
redness, swollen eyelids and tenderness in the affected area. Yellow pus, eyelid crusting and discomfort while
blinking also can occur. An eye stye usually resolves on its own, but it’s important to refrain from squeezing the
pus from a stye to reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other areas of the eye.
• Dry eyes. Insufficient tear production or dysfunction of the meibomian glands can lead to dry eye syndrome —
an often chronic condition in which the surface of the eyes is not properly lubricated and becomes irritated and
inflamed. Symptoms of dry eyes include red, bloodshot eyes, a burning sensation, blurry vision and a feeling
something is “in” your eye (foreign body sensation). Sometimes, dry eyes also can cause a very watery eye
discharge to occur.
• Contact lenses. If you wear contact lenses, you may find more sleep in your eyes than normal. This can be due to
a number of reasons, including a contact lens-related eye infection, contact lens discomfort resulting in dry and
irritated eyes, as well as rubbing your eyes more while wearing contacts. If you experience an increase in eye
discharge when wearing contacts, remove your lenses and see your eye doctor to rule out a potentially serious
• Eye injury. A foreign body in the eye (such as dirt, debris or a chemical substance) or an eye injury can cause
your eyes to secrete a watery discharge as a natural protective response.
• If eye pus or blood in the eye (subconjunctival hemorrhage) occurs after an eye injury, see your eye doctor
immediately for treatment. All eye injuries should be treated as a medical emergency.
• Corneal ulcer. A corneal ulcer is a sight-threatening, abscess-like infection of the cornea, usually caused by
trauma to the eye or an untreated eye infection. If not treated promptly, corneal ulcers can lead to complete
vision loss. Eye pain, redness, swollen eyelids and thick eye discharge are characteristic of a corneal ulcer. Eye
pus can be so severe that it clouds the cornea and impairs vision.
• Dacryocystitis. When a tear duct is blocked, the lacrimal sac in the tear drainage system leading to the nose can
become inflamed and infected, causing a tender and swollen bump to appear under the inner eyelid. In addition
to pain and redness, common symptoms of dacryocystitis include watery eyes, a sticky eye discharge and blurred
Eye discharge treatment
A small amount of eye discharge is harmless, but if you notice changes in the color, frequency, consistency and amount,
consult your eye doctor. If an eye infection is the cause of eye mucus, your eye care practitioner may prescribe antibiotic
or antiviral eye drops and ointments. If eye allergies are making your eyes watery and irritated, over-the-counter
antihistamine eye drops and decongestants may relieve symptoms. Warm compresses placed over your eyes may help
relieve symptoms of itching and general eye discomfort, as well as help remove eye goop. If your eyelids are stuck
together, the best way to “unglue” your lids is to wet a washcloth in warm water and place it over your eyes for a few
minutes before gently wiping away the eye gunk.
Follow these simple tips to avoid or manage eye discharge:
• Refrain from touching your eyes to avoid the onset or spread of an eye infection.
• Wash your hands frequently, especially if you have contagious pink eye.
• If you experience eye discharge when wearing contacts, remove your lenses and see your eye doctor. Sometimes
switching to daily disposable contacts can reduce the risk of contact lens-related discharge.
• If you have an eye infection, discard any potentially contaminated cosmetics such as mascara and eyeliner.
• If allergies are the cause of your watery eyes, investigate your environment and try to remove or minimize your
exposure to the irritants. And if you’re sensitive to eye drops, try using preservative-free drops.