Gunk in your eye

You know that gunk that you have crusted up in the corners of your eyes when you wake up in the morning? It’s totally normal, and everyone has it. Some people refer to it as “eye boogers” or “sleep in your eyes,” though the technical term is “rheum.”

Rheum is often yellow and thick. It can be either sticky or crusty depending on whether the liquid within it has evaporated and dried up. Either is normal.

Eye discharge is made up of a combination of eye mucus, skin cells, oil, and other debris. During the day, you blink it away without even realizing it, but it accumulates in the corners of your eyes while you sleep.

Why do we have eye mucus?

Eye mucus is one of our body’s natural defense systems. It helps remove both waste and potential harmful debris from your eyes, protecting them. It also helps to keep our eyes lubricated so they don’t get too dry. It’s flushed out automatically, along with the debris, when we blink.

The majority of eye mucus is made up of a watery, thin mucus called mucin that’s produced by the conjunctiva, an oily substance secreted by meibomian glands.

Normal eye mucus

Waking up with eye discharge accumulated in the corners of your eyes is completely normal.

If the discharge is persistent, unusual in consistency, or excessive during waking hours, this may be a symptom that something else is going on.

Different conditions that can cause unusual changes in eye discharge include the following:

  • Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, can produce white, yellow, or green mucus that is stringy and thick enough to make your eyes feel like they’re glued shut. This can also cause severe crusting. You may have pink eye in one eye but not the other, though it’s highly contagious.
  • Styes, which are often infected eyelid follicles, can cause thick yellow pus.
  • Dry eyes, which is caused by a lack of tear production, result in watery eye discharge.
  • Corneal ulcers, which are ulcerated and sometimes infected sores on the cornea, result in constant, thick discharge.

In children

Children, just like adults, will have normal eye discharge and at times unusual eye discharge that signals a problem. Pink eye in particular is extremely common in children, especially because it’s so contagious. If your child or baby has red eyes that seem to be itchy or painful, along with discharge, call their pediatrician.

About 10 percent of all infants are born with at least one tear duct that’s partially or completely blocked, which leads to an increased likelihood of conjunctivitis. Symptoms of blocked tear ducts may include thick white or yellow discharge.

Do eye boogers need treatment?

If you’re just experiencing noticeable discharge when you wake up, there is no treatment necessary. If discharge is caused by another condition, though, treatment may be needed. Treatment can include:

  • taking eye drops to treat conditions like conjunctivitis, dry eyes, or corneal ulcers
  • wearing glasses instead of contact lenses for several days or weeks while your eyes heal
  • avoiding any contact with your eyes except to apply medications, and only doing so after washing your hands thoroughly

The bottom line

Eye mucus is a normal, healthy substance designed to protect our eyes, and waking up to crusty eyes is nothing to be concerned about.

If, however, you notice a change in the amount or consistency of eye discharge along with other symptoms like itchy or painful eyes, light sensitivity, or blurry vision, get it checked by your doctor to make sure it isn’t an infection or an injury.