Do you ever contemplate the crusty substance that collects in the inner corners of your eyes or that sometimes is sticking to your lashes when you wake up in the morning? Is it normal? Does it ever signal a problem?
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There’s a bit of an ick factor when it comes to finding “sleep” in our eyes. But does it serve a purpose? What is that stuff?
Your eyes constantly produce mucus and tears for protection and to function normally. Every blink helps flush out excess mucus and irritants such as stray eyelashes or specks of dust or dirt.
When you’re sleeping, your eyes continue to manufacture tears and mucus. But since you’re not blinking, the excess matter gathers in the corners of your eyes and in your eyelashes, says ophthalmologist Aimee Haber, MD.
“Morning crusting contains the oil, mucous and dead cells that your eye has produced overnight,” Dr. Haber says.
You may think it’s slightly unpleasant, but it’s typically not a reason for concern.
“A small amount of clear or whitish eye discharge in the morning is normal,” she says.
Signs of a problem
Sometimes eye discharge is a sign of a problem with your eye or eyelid. It’s a good idea to pay attention if you notice changes in quantity or consistency of discharge, Dr. Haber says.
“Excessive tearing or abnormal discharge represent either the eye’s attempt to improve lubrication or fight infection or allergens,” she says. “It also could signal a problem with the tear drainage system.”
One common condition that may cause crusting around your eyes or eyelids is blepharitis, or inflammation of the eyelids. Blepharitis may cause your eyelids to stick together when you wake up. Proper eyelid hygiene can help limit this condition, but blepharitis may require medical attention.
If you notice you have more eye discharge than usual or it has changed color (usually to yellow or green), check with your eye doctor. This is especially important if you notice other signs, including:
- Light sensitivity
- Blurry vision
- Eye pain
- Swelling or redness
Many of us do it, but it’s best not to wipe the crust out of your eyes with your bare fingers.
The best method for wiping the sleep out of your eyes? Use a washcloth with warm water to first loosen and then remove it.
This is true whether your eye discharge is normal or not. But it’s especially important if you have an eye infection.
“When abnormal eye discharge stems from pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, people often are very contagious,” Dr. Haber says. “Avoid eye rubbing, as an infection can spread not only from person to person, but also from one eye to the other.”
If you suspect you have pink eye, take steps to prevent it from spreading until you are able to see an eye doctor. Wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your eyes.
Good eye hygiene can go a long way toward keeping your eyes healthy and avoiding irritation and infection, Dr. Haber says. She offers these tips:
- Always remove makeup before going to sleep, using eye makeup remover or baby shampoo on a moist washcloth to thoroughly remove mascara and eyeliner from around the eye.
- Refrain from touching your face, eyelids, and eyes throughout the day.
- If you experience eye discharge in the morning, use a clean warm moist washcloth instead of your fingers to gently remove discharge.