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When having crud in your eyes is a problem—and when it’s not
Some days we wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but other days we find ourselves having to work extra hard to wipe away the leftover drool and eye boogers to look presentable. When those mornings arise and there’s a bit more “crust” in our eyes than usual, it begs the question: Is that a sign of a contagious illness, or is it normal?
An expert from the Texas A&M College of Nursing talks about the goop in your eyes and whether it’s a problem or not.
What are eye boogers?
Eye crust is a type of rheum, a thin mucus that is naturally discharged from our eyes, noses and mouths. Rheum is made up of mucus, skin cells, oils and dust. Most of the time, we don’t even notice it because when we are awake, we are blinking and wiping away all of the buildup.
“When you sleep you get a buildup of eye discharge that tends to dry up and harden until you wake up and wipe them away,” said Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, and assistant professor at the Texas A&M University College of Nursing. “It’s very common to wake up with crusty eyes or eye discharge in the corners of our eyes, but there are some instances when it’s best to contact your health care provider.”
When are eye boogers a problem?
For the most part, our eyes are good at flushing out the stuff that’s not supposed to be there—like dirt or accidental shampoo—but sometimes the discharge that gets flushed out could be the sign of an underlying condition.
“One of the most common illnesses we’ll see with eye discharge is conjunctivitis, or pink eye,” Weston said. “When someone has pink eye, the eye discharge will be thick enough that it may be difficult for them to actually open their eyes.”
A study showed that bacterial conjunctivitis is a leading cause of children being absent from daycare or school, and parents should try to catch it early before classmates get sick. “Pink eye caused by bacteria should be seen and treated by a health care provider quickly,” Weston said. “If there is a thick goopy discharge, that is an automatic sign to get treatment before a chance of spreading.”
On the other hand, allergic or irritant conjunctivitis is non-contagious and caused by environmental factors, such as dust mites, animal dander, pollen or contact lenses. The discharge will be clear or watery and may present with other allergy symptoms, such as sneezing and nasal drainage. This type of pink eye can be treated with antihistamines, lubricating eye drops, cool eye compresses and avoiding the allergen.
Other conditions that can cause discharge
The tear ducts are located in between the bridge of the nose and the inner corner of the eye, and if they get blocked by inflammation, that can result in blurred vision, excessive tearing, mucus discharge or red or swollen eyes. Most blocked tear ducts won’t require a trip to a health care provider and are not contagious.
Blocked tear ducts are especially common in babies with duct abnormalities that will resolve themselves over time. Weston recommends placing a warm, wet cloth and gently massage over the inner lower eye at the tear duct as symptoms persist. If that treatment doesn’t work, it’s a good idea to consult a health care provider.
Blocked tear ducts can also be a problem for older children or adults who have had eye or sinus surgeries or are on certain medications—particularly topical eye medication(s).
Watery eyes can be caused from changes in the weather or allergies, but—ironically—they can also be a sign of dry eye. If they’re not properly lubricated, your eyes become irritated, release tears and cause a buildup in the corners of your eyes. While it can be fairly annoying, simple lubricating eye drops should fix the problem.
However, if your eyes are still crusty after trying eye drops and other over-the-counter treatment, it might be time to seek medical attention. “If it feels out of the ordinary, you should call your health care provider,” Weston said. “Especially if it is persistent or not responding to other treatment.”
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