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Sleepy Eyes: The Truth About Eye Discharge

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Every morning you wake up, and before you roll over, check your phone, or brush your teeth, you wipe the sleep out of your eyes. Morning “eye gunk” is such a universal experience, we’ve created songs, stories, and folklore, all based around the idea of the sandman.

But what is the discharge we call sleep really? And is it ever a cause for concern?

What is Eye Discharge?

Eye discharge is a combination of things. Your eye needs a certain combination of oils and mucus to stay lubricated between blinks. Overnight, these oils and mucus, mix together with dead skin cells, sweat, and whatever else might get into your eyes while you’re sleeping, hardening in the corners of your eyes.

To some extent, this discharge is designed to clean your eye; removing any debris from the surface of your eye, and sort of floating it out towards the corner.

Why Doesn’t Eye Discharge Appear When I’m Awake?

To some extent, eye discharge does appear when you’re awake. Your eye produces the same mucus during the day as it does at night. Every time you blink, your tears flush away the mucus. Naturally, you’re not blinking while you sleep, so instead of being flushed away, it collects and hardens on your lash line and in the corners of your eyes.

When is Eye Discharge Cause for Concern?

The discharge that comes naturally when you sleep shouldn’t come with pain, swelling, or sensitivity to light. If your eye discharge suddenly changes colour or consistency, you should see a doctor, as this could be an indication of a serious problem. Excessive or unusual discharge could be a symptom of the following conditions:

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

There are three main types of conjunctivitis: viral, allergic and bacterial. Bacterial conjunctivitis can cause extreme itching, swelling, redness, and an unusually high volume of sticky, yellow or greenish discharge. In fact, it’s not uncommon for patients to wake up, and find the eye infected with bacterial conjunctivitis is actually sealed shut from all the discharge. If this happens, you should wet a clean towel with warm water, and gently dab the affected eye until the crust begins to soften and wipe away.

You will need to see your doctor so they can properly diagnose conjunctivitis and prescribe the appropriate treatment. You will most likely be given antibiotic eye drops.


There are a number of eye infections aside from conjunctivitis. Most of these infections, ranging from eye herpes to poor contact lens hygiene, can cause unusual amounts of eye discharge. The consistency of this discharge ranges from watery and thin to sticky and thick. It’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible, as eye infections can be very serious, and could damage your vision if left untreated.

Corneal Ulcer

When your cornea becomes injured or does not receive appropriate treatment after infection, it can develop an abscess-like infection called a corneal ulcer. These ulcers are very serious, and could result in significant vision loss without treatment. Even with the appropriate treatment, the ulcer could still develop into distracting scar tissue.

Thick, pus-like discharge is a common indicator of a corneal ulcer. This discharge can be so thick, it actually begins to obstruct the patient’s vision. If your think you have a corneal ulcer, it’s imperative that you seek medical help immediately.

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