It might seem surprising that having dry eye syndrome can actually lead to increased discharge in your eye. But how much is too much?
Dry eye is a common condition that affects the outer layers of the eye, called the ocular surface, and tear film. It happens when your tears don’t function properly or when you do not produce enough tears to nourish and moisturize your eyes.
Dry eye syndrome causes symptoms such as discomfort, blurry vision, and discharge.
Read on to learn more about dry eye discharge, including where it comes from, the cause, and how to treat it.
It is possible to have discharge even when your eyes are dry.
The tear film creates a protective barrier between the surface of your eye and your environment. The tear film is a mix of oils, water, and mucus that are typically in balance.
However, if you have dry eyes, your body may compensate by producing tears that are less nourishing. This leads to an imbalanced tear film and can cause discharge.
Discharge often appears as watery or stringy mucus in or near your eyes.
An imbalanced tear film can also cause discomfort, vision concerns, and light sensitivity.
Each time you blink, a thin layer of tear film spreads across the surface of your eye, helping make the eye’s surface smooth and moist so you can see clearly. It also provides protection from infections and irritants, including dirt and dust.
The tear film covers the cornea and is composed of three layers:
- The oily layer: The meibomian glands along the eyelids produce the superficial layer, which creates a smooth surface and prevents tears from evaporating too quickly.
- The watery layer: The lacrimal glands in the eyelids produce the middle layer that nourishes the eye tissue, helps the eye to retain moisture, and washes away foreign particles in order to keep the eye’s surface clean.
- The mucus layer: The inner layer is made up of mucins, or glycoproteins, that are produced by conjunctival goblet cells. The conjunctiva creates mucus, which helps retain moisture so the tear film sticks to the eye.
Dry eye discharge is composed mostly of mucus, oil, and various debris. When your eyes are drier than usual, you may notice that the lack of water causes the mucus and oil to dry out and stick together. This can cause a buildup of sticky or gritty discharge in the corners of your eyes.
Eye discharge helps clear away dust and debris to keep your tear film and ocular surface clean. Usually, with every blink, the tear film flushes the mucus before it can harden.
It’s typical to have a small amount of discharge with dry eyes, especially after you sleep.
If you have a large amount of crusted green or yellow discharge or your eyelids are stuck shut, it could be a sign of an infection.
Atypical mucus discharge with dry eyes often occurs due to:
- a bacterial infection
- meibomian glands dysfunction
- aqueous tear deficiency
To maintain eye health and improve comfort, it’s important to treat dry eye discharge, which may be mild to severe. Left untreated, severe dry eyes can cause damage to your cornea, which is the transparent outer layer at the front of your eye.
Dry eye treatment may depend on the cause of your symptoms.
Treatment could include medications and medical conditions. You may need to change your medications and treat the underlying condition, such as allergies or an eye infection.
Treatments for dry eye discharge include:
- eye drops
- autologous serum eye drops
- ointments and moisturizing gels
- corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory medications)
- Restasis (cyclosporine)
- Xiidra (lifitegrast)
- macrolides or tetracyclines oral antibiotics
- therapeutic contact lenses
- intense pulsed light therapy
- vitamin A supplements
- omega-3 fatty acids supplements
Lifestyle changes include:
- reducing exposure to irritants, including pollution, chemical fumes, and cigarette smoke
- avoiding wind, dust, and air conditioning
- avoiding low humidity and using a humidifier
- wearing protective eyewear outdoors
- reducing screen time and taking frequent breaks during use
- staying hydrated
- getting enough sleep
- wearing moisture goggles during sleep
- applying a warm compress
- using eyelid wipes, cleansers, and scrubs
If your dry eye discharge is severe, your doctor may suggest tear duct plugs, which help your eyes retain tears longer and prevent them from draining too quickly.
These tiny silicone or gel plugs, called punctual plugs, are inserted in your tear ducts. Your doctor may also advise surgery to seal your tear ducts permanently.
Reach out to a doctor if your dry eye discharge symptoms have not improved with treatment or if you have severe dry eye discharge that is affecting your daily life.
An ophthalmologist can perform a comprehensive dilated eye exam to check for dry eye and other eye concerns. They may check to see if your eyes are producing enough tears, how quickly your tears dry up, and your eyelid structure. They may also test the quality and thickness of your tears and how fast you make them.
Dry eye discharge is relatively common and usually occurs in small amounts. Often, it is due to an imbalanced tear film, which can lead to fast tear evaporation and an insufficient supply of quality tears.
To retain eye moisture and prevent excess discharge, you may use a combination of prescription medications, over-the-counter treatments, and lifestyle changes.