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Gunk in the Eyes: Why You Have It & What It Means

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Last Updated

Gunk in the eyes doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad, as some eye gunk when you wake up is normal. It’s only a serious concern if the discharge is excessive, discolored, and/or accompanied by more serious health symptoms.

Why Our Eyes Produce Gunk

Eye gunk, also called eye discharge, is produced as part of the secretion of mucus or other non-tear fluids from your eyes. Most of this gunk is normal and produced as a part of the eye’s natural cleaning process. 

Over time, very tiny debris, such as dust, collects on the eye. Blinking washes this debris away, but it can sometimes collect as a residue at the corners of your eyes. This happens along with the naturally occurring mucus that coats the eye, which is more common when we sleep since we don’t blink.

With that said, sometimes health issues can cause more concerning gunk to be produced. It is not uncommon for babies to develop a blocked tear duct, which causes the eye to develop a sticky discharge and be more watery than normal. Eye infections can also cause unusual, excessive watery discharge, as can allergies. 

If gunk in the eyes is due to an infection or other concerning issue, it’s important to have a medical professional diagnose and treat the problem.

Types of Eye Gunk

Some of the most common types of eye gunk include the following:

Normal Discharge

Normal eye discharge is generally a white or pale cream color. It isn’t a cause for concern if it doesn’t seem to be affecting your vision or causing eye discomfort. 

This normal discharge is generally a combination of innocuous debris that collects on the eye as you have them open and naturally occurring mucus. This type of discharge can vary in consistency, ranging from thinner to sludgy. It tends to be most prevalent in the morning and not noticeable throughout the day.

Note that harsher debris, such as sand or even tiny particles of metal, can cause much more serious eye damage. Avoid getting these particles in your eyes when at all possible. See an eye doctor if you believe you have gotten these kinds of particles in your eye.

Watery Discharge

Watery discharge generally signals some kind of eye irritation and may signal a health issue of some kind if it happens for more than a few minutes. It is most often associated with viral conjunctivitis, also called pink eye, or an allergic reaction. 

Pink eye can be in one or both eyes, and it is associated with either watery or white discharge. The affected eye may be red, uncomfortable, and itchy. Sometimes, it may feel like you have something in your eyes, such as sand. 

If you have pink eye, it is a good idea to talk with a doctor. If it’s viral pink eye, they won’t prescribe medication, but they can if it’s likely to be bacterial pink eye.

An allergic reaction will usually affect both eyes, resulting in them being itchy and swelling. Sometimes, the watery discharge is also accompanied by eyelid swelling, which may make it harder to see. 

This type of reaction may warrant seeing a doctor, at least if it hasn’t happened before. It doesn’t necessarily signal a major health concern if you’ve had allergies before and know what triggers them for you.

Sticky Discharge

Sticky discharge, especially yellow or green discharge (discussed more below), can be another sign of pink eye and may make opening your eye more difficult. 

It can happen in babies as a result of a blocked tear duct due to tears not being able to drain properly. This type of blockage may also cause a small hard lump near the corner of the baby’s eye. It isn’t usually a serious medical concern if the baby’s eye otherwise seems fine, although you can talk to a doctor or nurse about how you may be able to help clear the duct safely. These issues usually get better on their own by the time a baby is 1 year old.

Yellow or Green Pus

If eye discharge is yellow or green, that typically signals that the eye is producing pus. A person’s eyelids may be matted together after they sleep by this gunk, making it hard to initially open the eyes. When the pus gets wiped away, the eye will continue to make more of it, and these problems may recur. 

A few issues can cause this kind of discharge, and some are more serious than others. It may just be a viral or bacterial infection of the eyes. A doctor can often help to treat these types of infections with drops. 

More serious issues that can cause this type of discharge include getting a foreign object stuck in the eye. This requires a medical professional’s help. If you have a foreign object stuck in your eye, see a doctor rather than trying to remove it yourself. A doctor can make sure that there is no risk of further damage.

Eyelid cellulitis can also cause yellow or green pus to be produced. This is a deep infection of the eyelid and surrounding tissue. This swelling usually only occurs on one side of the face or another, and it can result in such serious swelling that the eye can’t be opened. 

This condition doesn’t always cause pus, but it always warrants seeing a doctor to get treated.

Waking Up With Gunk or Eye Crust in Your Eyes

While having gunk in the eye can sometimes signal a health problem, it’s important to acknowledge that some level of eye gunk is normal. Most people wake up with at least some discharge in the corners of their eyes, which can be removed by carefully washing the corners of your eye with water. Take care to avoid accidentally brushing against the eyeball. 

If you have so much discharge in your eye that you have trouble opening them, experience significant itchiness or pain in addition to having problems with discharge, or your discharge is notably gooey or has a yellow or green color to it, contact a doctor. These types of symptoms aren’t usually typical of healthy eyes.

Preventing Eye Gunk

Eye gunk is generally a symptom, not an issue in and of itself. Again, “sleep gunk” is normal. When not discolored or excessive, this type of gunk generally signals that the eye is working as it should. 

If you want to keep your eyes clean and avoid any health conditions that cause more problematic gunk, the key is good hygiene. It’s best not to rub your eyes, something many people feel naturally inclined to do, as your hands can carry germs. Your nails may also scratch your eyes if you’re not careful, which can allow germs to access more sensitive parts of the eyeball. 

Experts recommend cleaning your eyes with a washcloth soaked in very warm water and resting it on your eyelids. You can then gently rub the cloth on your closed eyes and lashes. If your eyes feel extra sticky, just wait for a few minutes with the cloth on them, and this will usually resolve the issue.

Beyond this, talk to a doctor if you have consistent problems with eye gunk. Excessive discharge can sometimes result from chronic dry eye or allergies, which hygiene won’t necessarily help with. 

Your doctor can talk to you about what’s causing your discharge and whether it’s anything to worry about. They can often prescribe eye drops to help reduce discomfort. If it’s a more serious issue, they will work to help you resolve it.

References

  1. Eye Discharge. Healthdirect Australia.
  2. Eye – Pus or Discharge. (October 2022). Seattle Children’s.
  3. Is That Morning ‘Eye Gunk’ Normal? (January 2018). University of Utah.
  4. What Is Sleep Crust? (May 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  5. Conjunctivitis: A Systematic Review. (July 2020). Journal of Ophthalmic & Vision Research.
  6. Discharge From Eye. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  7. A Review of the Differential Diagnosis of Acute Infectious Conjunctivitis: Implications for Treatment and Management. (October 2019). Clinical Ophthalmology.
  8. Evaluation of Infectious Conjunctivitis by Clinical Evaluation and Novel Diagnostics. The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.
  9. Allergic Conjunctivitis: A Comprehensive Review of the Literature. (March 2013). Italian Journal of Pediatrics.
  10. Common Eye Infections. (June 2018). Australian Prescriber.
  11. The Pathogenesis of Staphylococcus Aureus Eye Infections. (January 2018). Molecular Pathogenesis of Staphylococcal Infections.

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