Eye Discharge: 11 Common Causes & What to Do

Eye discharge is very common, and is often noted first thing in the morning, when waking-up. However, it may be a sign of inflammation or infections, like conjunctivitis or blepharitis, if especially if the discharge is produced in excess throughout the day.

Eye discharge is naturally produced by the body, and is made-up of tears, oil, skin cells and mucus that accumulates in the corner of the eye. It serve to protect the eye and get rid of dirt or other debris that can irritate the eyes. 

You should see a doctor if you notice excessive eye discharge or if it presents with other symptoms like red eyes, swelling, or itching. The doctor will evaluate your symptoms to reach a diagnose and start treatment as necessary. 

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What causes eye discharge?

The most common causes of eye crust include: 

1. Pink eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is one of the most common causes of persistent eye discharge. It is characterized by inflammation of the membrane that lines the eyes and eyelids, also known as the conjunctiva. This swelling can occur with a viral, fungal or bacterial infection, and can be easily transmitted from person-to-person through direct contact of the discharge or contact with contaminated objects. 

Conjunctivitis can also be triggered by a dust, pollen, or fur allergy. 

In addition to excessive discharge, pink eye can also cause intense itching, swelling and redness. 

What to do: It is important to consult a doctor to confirm a diagnosis and initiate treatment. Treatment usually involves the use of artificial tear drops, or antibiotic and anti-histamines ointments or eyedrops. It is important to remember that infectious pink eye is contagious, and therefore patients are advised to stay at home to prevent transmission to others. 

2. Dry eyes

Dry eye syndrome is a chronic condition that occurs due to decreased tear production or excessive tear evaporation. Tears are needed to lubricate the eye ball, and decreased amounts can cause burning, light sensitivity, blurry vision or the sensation that something is stuck in your eye. 

Dry eye syndrome is more frequent-occurring in people with spend a lot of time on the computer or cell phone and in people who work in very dry or air-conditioned environments. It can happen with normal aging, menopause or other health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren syndrome, lupus or blepharitis. 

What to do: It is important to keep the eyes lubricated with eyedrops or artificial tears as indicated by the doctor. Patients with dry eye syndrome from computer use should blink regularly when working to prevent dry eyes. 

3. Cold or flu

It is possible to produce excessive tears with a cold or flu, which may lead to more eye crust.  

It is also common for eyes to become more swollen in red, which may cause itching and heat in the area. Read more about symptoms associated with the cold or flu and how treatment may differ with each. 

What to do: You should cleanse the eyes regularly with saline, in addition to resting, drinking plenty of fluids and maintaining a healthy diet. Cold and flu symptoms will usually improve on their own within a few days. You can also try these natural remedies for the cold or flu to help relieve symptoms and speed-up recovery. 

4. Dacryocystitis

Dacryocystitis is an inflammation of lacrimal sac due to an obstruction. It can be a congenital problem that babies are born with or as a result of other health conditions, nose fractures or following rhinoplasty. 

With dacryosystitis, the presence of eye crust is usually accompanied by redness, swelling, heat in the area and fever. A block in the lacrimal sac may lead to the growth of microorgnaisms, which may worsen inflammation. 

What to do: Dacryocystitis in newborns usually improves within the first year of life without any medical intervention. You should clean the baby’s eyes with saline and keep the eye lubricated to prevent dryness. The baby may benefit from light massage in the corner of the eyes to facilitate drainage.

Dacrocystitis caused by other health conditions, fractures or surgery may be treated with anti-inflammatory or antibiotic eye drops. More severe cases may require a surgical procedure to remove any obstructions. 

5. Blepharitis

Blepharitis is associated with increased eye crust around the eye lashes due to eyelid inflammation. Swelling occurs due to changes in the Meiboium glands, which serve to keep the eye moist. 

In addition to discharge, patients may also experience sudden symptpoms like itching, redness, eyelid swelling and tearing. 

What to do: Treatment is aimed at restoring moisture and promoting normal function of the tear glands. This can be done at home with appropriate cleansing of the eyes and crust removal. You can apply a warm compress to the eye for 3 minutes up to 3 times per day to relieve discomfort. 

If eyelid inflammation is recurrent, however, you should see an ophthalmolologist for assessment and more targeted treatment. 

6. Uveitis

Uveitis is an inflammation of uvea, which is the middle layer of the eye that makes up the iris, ciliary body and chorioid. Swelling can occur due to infections or as a result of autoimmune disease. 

Uveitis can cause excess eye discharge as well as light sensitivity, blurry vision and floaters. 

What to do: You should consult an ophthalmologist as soon as you notice symptoms of uveitis. Treatment is aimed at preventing further complications and may involve anti-inflammatory, corticosteroid or antibiotic eyedrops. 

7. Keratitis 

Keratitis is an inflammation and infection in the cornea that can be caused by fungus, bacteria, virus or parasites. It is usually associated with incorrect use of contact lenses. This condition can increased eye discharge, making it more fluid-like, thicker or a different color. 

In addition to eye crust, other signs and symptoms may include redness, blurry vision, difficulty opening the eyes and burning. 

What to do: You should consult and ophthalmologist  for assessment and treatment, which may include the use of antibiotic eyedrops or ointments. treatment is aimed at removing microorganisms and relieving symptoms. More severe cases may compromise vision, requiring a cornea transplant to restore vision.  

8. Sty

A sty is an inflammation of a small gland in the eyelid. It can cause excessive tearing and lead to more eye crust than normal. Other symptoms may include eye pain, eyelid swelling, redness, discomfort and itching. 

Styes mainly occur due to bacterial infections, seborrhea, acne or chronic blepharitis. 

What to do: Styes usually disappear on their own within 3 to 5 days without any specific treatment. The doctor may recommend warm compresses to help relieve swelling and other discomfort. Check-out other home remedies for styes that you can try to speed-up recovery. If the sty does not improve on its own, you should see a doctor for treatment with an antibiotic ointment or eye drop. 

9. Meibomitis 

Meibomitis is an inflammation of meibomian glands that are found in the upper and lower eyelids. Swelling can cause eye discharge, redness, eyelid swelling, and foamy tears. 

This inflammation can occur due to contact lens use, dry environments, excessive computer or cellphone use, hormonal changes or glaucoma eye drops. 

What to do: Treatment for meibomitis should be monitored by an ophthalmologist and depends on the severity of symptoms. The doctor may recommend warm compresses for your eyes, as well as lubricating, steroid or antibiotic eye drops. Surgery may be advised for more severe cases.

10. Ocular herpes

Ocular herpes is a viral infection cause by the herpex simplex 1 virus. It can affect one or both eyes, and lead to symptoms very similar to pink eye, such as eye crust, itching, swelling, redness, irritation, blurry vision, blisters or ulcerative lesions around the eyes.  

Ocular herpes is contagious and is easily transmitted through direct contact with the blisters or fluid, either from the eyes or mouth. It can also be transmitted indirectly, by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes. 

What to do: You should consult an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to start treatment and prevent complications, like blindness. Generally, antivirals or corticosteroids are advised, and can be taken in pill form or eye drops.  

11. COVID-19

COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness that is associated with symptoms like dry cough, fever and smelling or taste loss. However, it can also cause vision changes, like optic neuritis or pink eye, leading ot symptoms like increased discharge, eye pain, light sensitibity and itching. 

Eye changes caused by COVID-19 are still not fully understood, however they can occur due to pre-existing eye condition that worsened with COVID-19, or direct damage to the nerves, blood vessels or other eye structures from the virus. 

What to do: Patients with COVID-19 should remain isolated and consult their doctor. Rest, hydration and symptom relief with medications will help with recovery. 

Eye discharge in babies 

Babies may experience eye discharge with colds, flu or pink eye. It can lead to tearing, even without crying, yellow discharge, redness, and eyelid swelling. These symptoms should be assessed by a pediatrician. 

Eye crust may also be caused by a block in the tear duct, which is a congenital condition. It occurs due to malformation of nasolacrimal system, abnormal cranial or facial bone development or with premature birth. It is usually noted 3 to 12 weeks after birth. 

A blocked lacrimal duct usually resolves on its own within 6 to 9 months of life, or even later, depending on the development of the eye structures. However, when the eye crust interferes with the baby’s well-being, more targeted treatment is advised.