March 30, 2022

Why Are My Eyes Crusty?

Eye crusts can signal an infection or your body’s natural self-cleaning at work

A person sitting by a computer rubbing their eyes

It’s the same thing every morning: As soon as you’re awake and ready to start your day, you reach up and rub your eyes. Whether you consider it cleaning out gunk or something more pleasant like “sweeping the sleep from your eyes,” you’re wiping away a sort of crust that’s formed in your eyes while you dozed.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Yes, it’s gross. But it also has a purpose. And eye crust forms from more than just sleep — it can also be a sign of infection or that something is wrong with your eyes. To get the lowdown on what your eye crust can mean, we spoke to functional medicine expert Melissa Young, MD.

What causes your eye crust?

There are a few things that can cause eye crust, also known as rheum, says Dr. Young. It’s the crust that forms in the corners of your eyes or even causes your eyelashes to stick together. And the reason for it can range from the mundane to the medically important.

Sleep

The eye crust that forms when you sleep is all about keeping things clean, says Dr. Young. “During the day, we’re frequently blinking and washing away dirt, dust, exfoliated skin cells and mucus,” she says. “When you’re sleeping, you’re not blinking, so all of that mucus, oil, dirt and skin cells accumulate in the corners of your eyes.”

And while you sleep, everything congeals and dries out, forming that crust. This is typically part of the natural process, but there are times when something else is going on.

Allergies

If you’re prone to seasonal allergies, you’ve probably woken up with itchy, red and swollen eyes that can be crusted over. With allergies, your body produces that mucus to do an extra thorough job of cleaning out the allergens. That excess discharge can sometimes be so much that it feels like your eyes are glued shut, too.

Everything from pollen to dust can trigger allergies in your eyes, Dr. Young says. “Whether it’s dust or animal allergies, you get itching, inflammation and redness and more tearing in the eyes, plus that mucus discharge.”

Advertisement

One thing that might offer relief is showering before bed. “We collect dust, pollen and other allergens throughout the day, so washing your hair and your face can help rinse them away,” says Dr. Young.

Cold compresses and over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops can also help, but be sure to consult your doctor if inflammation and discharge worsen. More severe symptoms to look out for include swollen eyelids and a yellow or green discharge, which can be a sign of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis)

Ah, yes, pink eye. This highly contagious eye infection is synonymous with school kids, but it’s also one that can affect both children and adults equally. The condition gets its name from one its primary symptoms: reddening of your conjunctiva — that is, the white area of your eyeball. “You’ll also see a stickier discharge,” notes Dr. Young, “but if it’s viral, the discharge is less colored, not the yellow or green of bacterial conjunctivitis.”

As pink eye is so contagious, be especially careful of your behavior if you get it. “Don’t rub your eyes and then shake someone’s hand,” advises Dr. Young. “Be sure to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands and don’t share towels with anyone else in your household.”

She adds that it’s best to consult with your doctor — as there are so many overlapping symptoms between viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, treatments can differ.

Is rubbing your eyes a safe way to clean the crust?

When you wake, it’s pretty normal to rub your eyes to clear away the crust. But if possible, Dr. Young recommends taking a different approach. “Using a washcloth that’s been soaked with warm water is a safe, easy way to clean your eyes in the morning,” she says. “And it has the added benefit of keeping you from touching your eyes, which is one way to transmit bacteria to your eyes.”

Advertisement

That approach can be especially important if you have excess discharge from one of the conditions listed above.

When should you see a doctor for excess eye crust?

According to Dr. Young, you should see your healthcare provider when you have any of these symptoms:

  • Discharge that’s green or yellow.
  • Any pain in your eyes.
  • Swelling of your eyelids.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Blurry vision that’s not typical.

Because of overlapping symptoms, your doctor will be able to help you figure out what you’re dealing with and the best way to treat it.

Related Articles

Lash lift procedure.
January 29, 2023
Are Lash Lifts Worth It? Here’s What To Know Before Trying

Allergic reactions and overprocessing are just a couple things to keep an eye out for

Person with pink eye.
August 31, 2022
Here’s How To Get Rid Of Pink Eye Fast

Eye drops and cold water rinses can help speed up the healing process

red itchy eye
April 4, 2021
Itchy, Red Eyes? How to Tell If It’s Allergy or Infection

What to consider before you self-treat

contact case with contacts inside
December 23, 2020
Avoid These Eye Infections From Bad Contact Lens Habits

For starters, don’t sleep in contact lenses

safe eye drops being put into eye
June 22, 2020
Which Drops Are Best for Your Itchy, Red or Dry Eyes?

How and when to use over-the-counter drops

Older man rubbing his eyes
July 18, 2019
The Dangers of Rubbing Itchy Eyes

From scratching your cornea and introducing allergens to causing infections, there’s many reasons to keep your hands out of your eyes

woman sleeping with eye open
February 6, 2024
Why Do Some People Sleep With Their Eyes Open?

Nocturnal lagophthalmos may be caused by damaged nerves or muscles in your face

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad