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4 Causes of Eye Discharge

Eye discharge may be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, allergies, or irritation.
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Last updated March 15, 2021

Eye discharge questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your discharge.

Eye discharge questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your discharge.

Eye discharge symptom checker

What is eye discharge?

Eye discharge is a very common condition, often described as having “boogers,” “gunk,” or “sleep” in your eye. The discharge can be clear, white, yellow, green, or even bloody. While there are many reasons it can happen, and it usually won’t hurt your vision, it can sometimes be more serious.

Causes of eye discharge

1. Blepharitis

Symptoms

  • Clear or white discharge (especially in the corners of the eyes)
  • Itchy, red eyelids
  • Blurry vision

Blepharitis occurs when the oil glands in your eyelids become plugged with mucus, dirt, or debris from the environment. These glands protect the surface of your eye from these irritants, but if they are inflamed or clogged it can lead to discharge.

Treatment

The best way to treat blepharitis is to keep your eyelids clean. You can do this by using:

  • Warm compresses (run a washcloth under hot water and place over closed eyes for 5 to 10 minutes)
  • Artificial tears
  • Make-up remover pads
  • Baby shampoo (dilute a small amount and gently use your fingers to wash your eyelids, then rinse)

2. Conjunctivitis

Symptoms

  • Discharge (clear, mucus-like, green, yellow)
  • Redness in the white part of the eye
  • Blurry vision
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Itching
  • Watering

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, or the clear layer that covers the white part of the eye. There are many causes, but the most common are from a virus or bacteria, or an allergic reaction.

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type, and is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as cough, cold, runny nose, and sore throat. Usually, you’ll notice symptoms in one eye first, but it can spread to the other eye in a few days. It typically lasts about 7 to 10 days, but it is contagious during this time.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is usually caused by too much bacteria growing on the conjunctiva. This is usually when the common bacteria that live on your face come into close contact with your eye.

Pro Tip

Even though a patient may want antibiotic drops for viral conjunctivitis—which is the most common cause of eye discharge—they are not necessary and can be harmful.  Time is the best healer! —Dr. Khushboo Agrawal

Treatment

Since the best treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the underlying cause, your doctor may use a cotton swab to take a sample of the discharge and send it to a laboratory.

Do not treat viral conjunctivitis with antibiotic drops—it won’t help it get better. Treatment involves:

  • Washing your hands often
  • Limiting how often you touch your eye
  • Using artificial tears to keep the surface of your eye moist

Treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis:

  • Using eye drops, such as polymyxin (Polytrim), Ciprofloxacin, or Bacitracin ointment, for 5 to 7 days
  • Children may also need oral antibiotics

To treat allergic conjunctivitis, which commonly develops in people who have seasonal allergies or a history of asthma, do your best to avoid the allergen and use anti-allergy drops, such as antihistamines.

Since the right treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the underlying cause, your doctor may take a sample of the discharge (with a cotton swab) and send it to a laboratory.

Eye discharge questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your discharge.

Eye discharge symptom checker

3. Blocked tear duct

Symptoms

  • Discharge (often watery but can be bloody)
  • Blurry vision
  • Swelling in the corner of the eye

Blocked tear ducts are common in newborns and infants, but adults can get them too. They happen when the ducts narrow due to:

  • Age-related causes
  • Infection
  • Eye trauma
  • A tumor or growth pushing on the duct

Your doctor can diagnose a blocked tear duct through a physical examination, including a tear drainage test (this measures how quickly your eye drains and also if there is a blockage).

Treatment

  • Massage
  • Dilation
  • Surgery for severe cases

4. Sexually transmitted infections

Symptoms

  • A large amount of oozing, thick discharge (often green or yellow)
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye pain
  • Burning or pain in the front of the eye or the feeling of something being in your eye
  • Eyelid swelling

There are a few sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that can cause eye discharge. Gonorrhea can cause a large amount of discharge, severely inflamed eyes, and infection or inflammation in the cornea. This is usually because someone touched the infected genitals and then touched your eye. It can also happen during direct genital-to-eye contact. A mother can also pass the STI to her baby during delivery.

Chlamydia can also cause conjunctivitis and is transmitted the same way.

Treatment

Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can be treated with oral antibiotics and eye drops.

Dr. Rx

Sexually transmitted diseases can actually cause serious, vision-threatening eye infections. They have become more prevalent as the rates of oral sex have increased. While it can be hard to talk about,  be honest with your doctor about any STI—or the possibility of one. —Dr. Agrawal

Eye discharge questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your discharge.

Eye discharge symptom checker

When to call the doctor

  • Your eye discharge symptoms last for more than a week.
  • You wear contact lenses.
  • You were previously diagnosed with a chronic eye condition, like allergic conjunctivitis, and your symptoms have worsened or are not responding to your usual treatment.

Should I go to the ER?

In certain situations, you should seek immediate care for your eye discharge since it could be a sign of a serious infection.

  • Your vision is rapidly declining.
  • You have bloody discharge.
  • You have extreme pain in your eye.
  • You suddenly have a lot of discharge and blurry vision.

Treatments

There are some at-home treatments that may help clear up your eye discharge:

  • Avoid possible allergens, like pollen and dust.
  • Use cool or warm compresses.
  • Switch to glasses if you typically wear contact lenses.
  • Use eye drops (antihistamine drops may be especially helpful for allergic eye discharge symptoms).
  • Use artificial tears if your eyes are dry.
  • Keep your eyelids clean by gently washing with a mild soap.
  • Keep your hands clean by washing them frequently.

Pro Tip

If you have allergic conjunctivitis, ask your doctor if you need to be on any oral antihistamines or allergy pills for the long term, to prevent repeated bouts of conjunctivitis. —Dr. Agrawal

Specialty treatment options

Your doctor may also use one of the following to clear up the eye discharge:

  • Prescription antibiotic drops.
  • Prescription antibiotic pills
  • Prescription steroids or other medications for allergic conjunctivitis
  • Tear duct stent placement
  • Incision and drainage of inflamed tear duct
Share your story
Dr. Agrawal is a board - certified Ophthalmologist and writer for Buoy Health. She received her Bachelor of Science from Vanderbilt University and Medical Degree from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She completed a medical internship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and residency at the University of Chicago. Subsequently, she completed a two year fellowship in surgical retina at the...
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