Eye Discharge

What Causes Mucus in My Eyes?

Woman rubbing her eyes
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Most of us have awoken with mucus in our eyes at some point in our life. Often referred to as “sleep” in the eyes, it is actually fairly normal to wake up with a bit of eye gunk in the morning. When we sleep, our tear production is less than it is during the day. In addition, we are not blinking throughout the night. As a result, dried tears solidify and collect in the corners of our eyes, and is easily removed with the brush of a finger.

 However, when excessive amounts of mucus collect in our eyes or if we wake up with our eyelids actually stuck together, it may be a sign of a more serious eye condition that requires intervention. The following conditions tend to produce mucus discharge from the eyes that may need medical treatment:

Bacterial conjunctivitis - This type of conjunctivitis can cause you to wake up with your eyelids completely stuck shut. You may need to place a warm washcloth on the eyes just to get them open. Bacterial conjunctivitis can cause continuous mucus to be produced throughout the day and tends to be darker in nature, usually yellow or green in color. This type of conjunctivitis can occur along with certain upper respiratory illnesses. Although not usually extremely contagious, it can be depending on the type of bacteria involved.

Viral conjunctivitis - Viral conjunctivitis can be extremely contagious in nature and the symptoms can often last for weeks at a time.

The discharge that occurs with a viral conjunctivitis tends to be more yellow, or even clear. It can cause a variety of symptoms such as eyelid swelling, redness and a foreign body sensation.Vision may become blurry after a week of having viral conjunctivitis. If symptoms occur for more than a few days, see your eye doctor.

Allergic conjunctivitis - Usually eye allergies cause white, stringy mucus discharge and a lot of associated tearing and itching. Mild allergies are not a big concern but some people are susceptible to more severe forms of allergic conjunctivitis such as vernal keratoconjunctivitis (VKC). VKC tends to occur in warmer climates and in younger males and can cause them to be very miserable. VKC can also cause more severe symptoms, decreased vision and even scarring.

Giant papillary conjunctivitis - Often referred to as GPC, giant papillary conjunctivitis occurs mostly in contact lens wearers. It mimics allergic conjunctivitis to a degree but is more of an immune reaction to certain proteins that become bound to the surface of the contact lens itself. Some researchers think that it is also caused by having a contact lens in the eye most of the hours of the day. People tend to forget that a contact lens is actually a foreign body in the eye. 

Blocked tear duct - The tears are drained from the eye by the lacrimal system in the corner of the eyes. When this gets blocked, an infection can occur and cause excess tearing and mucus discharge to collect in the corners of the eyes.This is common in infants and usually spontaneously resolves on its own.

It can also develop in adults and may require surgery to correct.

Blepharitis - Blepharitis is an infection and inflammation of the eyelid margins. It is caused by bacteria that we all tend to have on our skin but in some people it proliferates on the eyelids either due to lack of good hygiene or secondary to common skin types or skin conditions such as rosacea or psoriasis. Blepharitis can cause redness, a sandy, gritty feeling in the eyes, and mucus discharge from the eye. Blepharitis can involve the meibomian glands along the eyelids. When these glands are inflamed, the eye may produce abnormal oil production and foamy discharge from the eye.

Dry eye syndrome - The tears are much more complex than most people think. They contain many different minerals, vitamins and enzymes. They are also mainly composed of water, mucus and oil. When someone has dry eyes from a lack of the aqueous or water component in the tears, all that is left over is mucus and oil. In dry eye patients, this tends to accumulate in the corner of the eyes during the night.

Source:  Holland, Edward, Mark Mannis and Barry Lee. Ocular Surface Disease: Cornea, Conjunctiva and Tear Film, May 2013, Elsevier, Inc.

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