If you’ve ever watched the iconic show Friday Night Lights, you know that “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” But what if your eyes aren’t so clear?
Waking up with some eye crustiness is normal, but excessive eye discharge can be a sign that something’s not right. What is eye goop and what can it say about your eyes? Read on to learn about the potential causes and what steps you can take to keep your eyes healthy and clear.
Not a dry eye in the room
Unlike skin, the surface of the eye is always moist, explains Dr. Esen Akpek, an ophthalmologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Our eyes are always wet because they are made of living cells, which require moisture to stay healthy. (The top layer of your skin is made of dead cells, which is why it’s dry.)
Eyes stay wet thanks to three layers of tear film, which exist to “provide lubrication, clarity of vision and nutrition to the cornea,” Akpek says. Each of these layers secrete different liquids, made up of different biomaterials like proteins, lipids and salts, to keep the eyes moist.
When you blink, you spread lubrication from your tear film across the surface of the eye. Blinking can also help rid of any dust, dirt or other particles from your eyes.
Your tear ducts then act as a drainage system for excess fluid, which is released when you cry or tear up.
The secrets of sleep dust
When we sleep, we don’t blink, which can cause liquid to collect around your tear ducts. That extra lubrication also keeps your eyes from drying out during sleep, because though our eyes are closed, a small part of the inner eye is still exposed to air.
This excess liquid collects overnight and shows up in the morning as a bit of whitish crust in the inner eye. You might call it sleep dust, sleep sand or good old “eye boogers,” but the scientific term is “rheum.”
A small amount of rheum in the morning after sleep is normal. But if your morning eye discharge is a color other than off-white, or is accompanied by redness, puffiness or other irritation in or around the eye, that could be a sign something else is going on. If it’s enough discharge that your eyelids are matted together, or if you’re experiencing discharge during the day while your eyes are open, it might be time to call an eye doctor.
The meanings behind eye gunk
Abnormal eye discharge can signal a variety of different issues, says Dr. Christopher J. Rapuano, an ophthalmologist in Philadelphia. It could be just bad dryness or allergies. “But it’s more often inflammation, which can be related to a bunch of different things.”
Many times, your conjunctiva (the thin film that protects the white part of the eye) may be inflamed. This is called conjunctivitis, or more commonly, “pink eye.” Conjunctivitis causes eye redness and is generally accompanied by discharge, either excess clear tears or the buildup of a thicker, opaque mucus.
Viral infections, like the common cold, bacterial infections and even sexually transmitted infections, can cause conjunctivitis. While your eye doctor will let a viral infection run its course, they’ll typically prescribe you an antibiotic to treat bacteria-induced pink eye. Conjunctivitis caused by infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia should be treated with antibiotics as quickly as possible, as they create “really bad, pus-like discharge,” Rapuano says.
The varicella virus, which causes chickenpox in childhood and can reemerge as shingles in adulthood, can also bring on a bad case of pink eye. Shingles can cause eye damage and should be treated with antiviral medication as quickly as possible.
While shingles can’t spread between people, conjunctivitis infections are all highly contagious; you might remember pink eye rampaging through your classroom as a kid. These infections spread easily through contact between hands and eyes, so avoid touching your eyes; if you need to do so, wash your hands beforehand and after.
When it’s time to call an eye doctor
Generally, conjunctivitis infections are easy to treat or clear up on their own, but if your eyes are producing extra goop, you should visit an eye doctor to figure out what’s going on.
If eye discharge is accompanied by pain or blurry vision, then you should schedule a visit right away, says Rapuano. These may be signs that you’re having issues with your cornea, the “window” at the front of the eye that helps you see clearly.
“Pain could be from a scratch on the cornea or an infection in the cornea, as opposed to just the conjunctiva,” Rapuano explains. “Gunky, green-yellow discharge, pain and decreased vision — those are all red flags that a person should see an eye doctor sooner rather than later.” Corneal damage can lead to vision problems, which may require laser treatment or even transplants to correct.
There are two types of eye doctors: ophthalmologists and optometrists. The latter can write prescriptions for basic treatments, but if the issue is more complex, an optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist. Depending on the issue at hand, you may be referred to a cornea specialist.
Surprising risks of vision correction
If you wear contact lenses, heads up: You’re at increased risk for eye infections. “It’s a foreign body,” Akpek points out.
Wearing contacts can worsen pink eye, in some cases causing the infection to spread to the cornea, which in the worst cases can lead to corneal scarring. If you have any pain or light sensitivity while wearing your lenses, schedule a visit to your eye doctor right away.
To prevent these types of situations, Akpek warns against sleeping in your contact lenses and recommends removing them before showering or swimming, unless you have tight-fitting goggles. Always wash your hands before touching your contacts, and store your lenses properly in a case using proper solution.
To keep your eyes clean and healthy, avoid touching them. When you have to, always wash your hands beforehand, as well as after. Akpek recommends cleaning the eyelid and eyelash with baby shampoo or another gentle cleanser from time to time, to wipe away dirt and debris and keep the eye area clean.
If your eyes are dry, red or irritated, over-the-counter artificial tears can help lubricate them.
And even if you have great vision, it’s important to get your eyes checked from time to time, especially as you age, says Rapuano. “Certain eye diseases, like glaucoma, can advance without affecting your vision,” he explains. “Catching it early is important.”