Have you ever woken up with wet, gummy, or crusty eyes? While likely harmless, in some cases, you may need to see a doctor.

What are sticky eyes?

If you have allergies or a cold, you may have woken up with wet or crusted discharge in your eyes. This discharge can cause your eyes to become so wet or gummy that it may feel like your eyes are glued shut. This symptom is also referred to as sticky eyes.

If you have sticky eyes, you have accumulated discharge — a collection of skin cells, debris, oil, and mucus — in the corner of your eyes. It’s often not a cause for alarm, but if it becomes consistent and excessive, sticky eyes can be a sign of an infection.

The most common identifier of sticky eyes is a gummy discharge in the corner of your eye that may have spread across your eyelid. It’s important to take note of the color and consistency of this mucus. While occasional crusting is normal, abnormal colors accompanied with pain or excessive discharge should be discussed with your doctor, especially if they’re causing vision troubles. Some discharge colors or consistencies to look out for include:

  • thick green or gray discharge
  • thick, crusty discharge residue
  • excessively watery discharge
  • yellow discharge

Other symptoms you may experience with sticky eyes include:

Your eyes produce mucus throughout the day. It’s an essential part of normal tear production. This mucus — or discharge — helps to remove waste from your eyes and keeps your eyes lubricated. If your tear ducts become blocked, mucus can accumulate in the corner of your eye and spread. This often occurs while you’re sleeping.

The occasional crust from discharge is normal when waking up from a night’s rest. However, cases of abnormal discharge can have a number of contributing factors. Some conditions that may cause sticky eyes and excessive eye discharge include:

Treatment for sticky eye discharge depends on the underlying cause. Many home treatments can help with this condition. Before administering any treatment, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly to remove dirt, debris, and bacteria.

If your eyes are “glued shut” from dried discharge, take a warm washcloth and gently wipe your eyes. The warmth can loosen the crust from dried mucus, allowing your eyes to open. You can also use the warm washcloth as a compress to alleviate itching and irritation.

If your sticky eyes are the result of a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments. If you’re experiencing sticky eyes from common allergies or a cold, over-the-counter (OTC) medication and antihistamines can help eliminate symptoms.

If you notice that you’re experiencing irregular symptoms after using facial products or makeup, stop use immediately and throw away any remaining products. These products may be irritating your eyes. If you’ve had an infection while using those makeup products, they may have become contaminated with bacteria.

It’s also important to thoroughly clean and care for your contact lenses to prevent an infection.

Sticky eyes and accompanying discharge are usually no cause for concern. They may even clear up on their own. However, if you begin to experience worsening symptoms alongside heavy eye discharge, your doctor may recommend medical treatment.

Do not attempt to self-diagnose. Your condition may indicate a more serious infection. Seek proper medical attention to ensure you, and your eyes, receive the best treatment.