Symptoms A-Z

Sinus Infection, Pink Eye, Allergies: Top 9 Eye Discharge Causes

Understand your eye discharge symptoms, including 6 causes & treatment options for your eye discharge.

This symptom can also be referred to as: fluid from eye, oculorrhea

An image depicting a person suffering from eye discharge symptoms

Eye Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out why you're having eye discharge

Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 6 Possible Eye Discharge Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. References

Eye Discharge Symptoms

Many people will experience discharge from the eye at some point, especially in childhood. Depending on the cause, the discharge may be thick or thin and can be a variety of colors, and there will likely be other eye symptoms present.

The eyes are complex structures with multiple components that can be involved in conditions that cause eye discharge symptoms. A thin see-through tissue, the conjunctiva, covers the front of the eye and the inner eyelids. Just below the conjunctiva is the cornea, a curved transparent structure overlying the iris and pupil. The cornea bends light as it enters the eye, bringing it into focus so that you can see objects clearly. Tears are drained by the lacrimal system, a group of structures adjacent to the eye [2, 9].

Symptoms that can be associated with eye discharge include:

Eye Discharge Causes

Infection of the conjunctiva:

  • Viral conjunctivitis: One of the most common causes of eye discharge is a viral infection of the conjunctiva. The discharge will be watery, and often starts after an upper respiratory infection. [4]
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: A bacterial infection of the conjunctiva can cause thick eye discharge that is yellow, green, or white in color [16].
  • Sexually transmitted infections: Chlamydia or gonorrhea can cause infection of the conjunctiva in addition to the genital tract. This can occur in adults, but newborns can also acquire chlamydial or gonococcal conjunctivitis during delivery.

Other types of infection:

  • Corneal infection: One potentially severe cause of eye discharge symptoms is an infection of the cornea, commonly associated with poor contact lens hygiene [5].
  • Eyelid infection: Chronic bacterial infection and inflammation of the eyelids can cause eye discharge symptoms, along with eyelid swelling and flakes on the eyelashes [6].

Allergy:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: The conjunctiva can become inflamed due to exposure to environmental allergens. Usually the eye discharge will be watery and accompanied by intense eye itchiness [7, 16].
  • Vernal keratoconjunctivitis: A more severe allergic condition involves inflammation of both the conjunctiva and the cornea. In this case there will be thick discharge, light sensitivity, and eyelid thickening [8].

Other eye discharge causes:

  • Foreign body: The eye may produce discharge in response to a retained object, such as a splinter of wood [10].
  • Blockage of the lacrimal system: Obstruction of one of the components of the lacrimal system commonly occurs in newborns but can also happen in adults. Tears are unable to drain normally, causing excess tearing and eye discharge symptoms [11].
  • Dry eye: A condition causing overly dry eyes can also cause intermittent periods of excess tearing or eye discharge as the eyes attempt to compensate for chronic dryness [9].

6 Possible Eye Discharge Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced eye discharge. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Acute allergic conjunctivitis

Itchy, red, swelling of the whites of the eyes can be caused by allergies to any number of things (like pollen, hay, etc).

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: eye itch, eye redness, watery eye discharge, itch in both eyes, eye redness

Symptoms that always occur with acute allergic conjunctivitis: eye itch, eye redness

Symptoms that never occur with acute allergic conjunctivitis: lump in front of the ear, vision changes

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Viral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, is an inflammation of the clear membranes covering the eye. It causes redness, pain, and irritation of one or both eyes.

The viral form of conjunctivitis is very contagious because it is caused by the same viruses that cause influenza or the common cold. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and then someone else inhales the virus from the droplets in the air.

Symptoms include a gritty, burning feeling in the eye; discharge or tears; swelling; itching; pink discoloration due to dilated blood vessels; and sensitivity to light.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and careful eye examination. Smears may be taken from the eye for testing.

Antibiotics only work against bacteria and cannot help against a viral illness, and so antibiotic eyedrops are not effective against viral conjunctivitis. Treatment includes easing the symptoms with eyedrops and warm or cool compresses over the eyes until the illness has run its course, which takes two to three weeks.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: eye redness, eye itch, sensitivity to light, feeling of something in the eye, watery eye discharge

Symptoms that always occur with viral conjunctivitis: eye redness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, is an inflammation of the clear membranes covering the eye. It causes redness, pain, and irritation of one or both eyes.

Staphylococcus or streptococcus bacteria are often involved, and anything that brings bacteria to the eye can cause conjunctivitis. Touching the eyes with unwashed hands; sharing eye makeup, washcloths, or towels; or improperly cleaning contact lenses are common causes. The same bacteria that cause the sexually transmitted diseases chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause conjunctivitis.

Most susceptible are children, but anyone can be affected.

Symptoms include a gritty, burning feeling in the eye; discharge or tears; swelling; itching; pink discoloration due to dilated blood vessels; and sensitivity to light.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and careful eye examination. Smears may be taken from the eye for testing.

Treatment involves a course of antibiotic eyedrops. It is important to use all of the drops as prescribed, even when the infection seems to improve. Warm compresses over the eyes can help ease the discomfort.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: sore throat, eye redness, eye itch, watery eye discharge, eye redness

Symptoms that always occur with bacterial conjunctivitis: eye redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Eye Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out why you're having eye discharge

Vernal conjunctivitis

Vernal conjunctivitis is long-term (chronic) swelling (inflammation) of the outer lining of the eyes due to an allergic reaction. Vernal conjunctivitis often occurs in people with a strong family history of allergies, such as allergic rhinitis, asthma, and eczema.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: wateriness in both eyes, eye itch, eye redness, sensitivity to light, feeling of something in the eye

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Contact lens-related eye infection

Millions of people wear contact lens daily without issue; however, there is a risk of infection. Often, infection is avoidable by keeping lenses clean.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: eye redness, wateriness in both eyes, sensitivity to light, constant eye redness, eye redness

Symptoms that always occur with contact lens-related eye infection: eye redness, constant eye redness

Urgency: In-person visit

Chronic allergic conjunctivitis

Itchy, red, swelling of the whites of the eyes caused by allergies to any number of things (like pollen, hay, etc).

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: watery eye discharge, eye redness, itch in both eyes, severe eye itch, swollen eyelid

Symptoms that always occur with chronic allergic conjunctivitis: itch in both eyes, eye redness, severe eye itch

Symptoms that never occur with chronic allergic conjunctivitis: vision changes, lump in front of the ear

Urgency: Self-treatment

Eye Discharge Treatments and Relief

Many causes of eye discharge can be managed at home or with a non-emergent appointment [3, 6, 7, 8, 9]. However, some severe conditions that cause eye discharge symptoms can lead to vision loss without rapid diagnosis and treatment [4, 5, 10, 13, 14].

Seek emergency eye discharge treatment if:

  • You have severe eye pain [13].
  • You are experiencing visual changes such as blurriness.
  • You have a possible exposure to gonorrhea.
  • You have rapidly developed thick discharge so severe that it re-accumulates whenever you wipe it away.
  • There has been an injury to the eye, particularly if an object may have been left behind.
  • You have previously been diagnosed with a medical condition that causes reduced immune system functioning.

In some cases, even though emergency eye discharge treatment isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation and treatment [15].

Make an appointment with your medical provider if:

  • Your eye discharge symptoms continue for more than a week [15].
  • You wear contact lenses [12].
  • You are experiencing light sensitivity [15].
  • You were previously diagnosed with a chronic eye condition, such as allergic conjunctivitis, and your symptoms have worsened or are not responding to your usual treatment [7].

Your medical provider may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your eye discharge symptoms:

  • Antibiotic eye drops to treat infection [16].
  • Oral antibiotics for chronic infection or if a sexually transmitted infection is suspected.
  • Anti-inflammatory eye drops to treat allergic symptoms.
  • Referral to an ophthalmologist for management of complicated infections or conditions that require surgical treatment [17].

Some home treatments may help with eye discharge symptoms.

  • Avoid possible allergens such as pollen and dust [16].
  • Cool or warm compresses can help relieve eye discomfort.
  • If you typically wear contact lenses, switch to glasses.
  • Antihistamine drops may be helpful for allergic eye discharge symptoms.
  • Artificial tears can help with dry eyes.
  • Cleaning the eyelids with a mild soap can help with eyelid infection and inflammation.

FAQs About Eye Discharge

Here are some frequently asked questions about eye discharge.

Is eye discharge contagious?

One of the most common causes of eye discharge is conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the thin protective layer that covers the eye and eyelids [4, 8, 14, 16]. This inflammation is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection, both of which are highly contagious. To prevent infecting other people, make sure to wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing personal items like pillowcases.

Why do I have eye discharge when I have a sinus infection?

Eye discharge is often associated with a bacterial or viral infection of the conjunctiva, the eyes thin protective layer [4, 14, 16]. In many cases the infection starts in nearby structures and then spreads to the eyes [18]. This can occur with an upper respiratory infection such as a sinus infection, or with an ear infection.

Why is my eye discharge white?

There are two major types of eye discharge: watery and clear or thick with a color such as white, yellow, or green. Thick white discharge points to a bacterial infection as a likely underlying cause. This is in contrast to clear discharge, which is more likely to be caused by allergies or a viral infection.

Can allergies cause eye discharge?

Yes, allergies can cause eye discharge [7]. Typically there will also be redness and severe itchiness. The symptoms may occur seasonally or throughout the year. Eye discharge associated with allergies is usually watery, but in a more severe allergic condition that is periodic and usually in the spring called vernal keratoconjunctivitis, the discharge may be thick and stringy.

What causes crust on eyelids?

Crust on the eyelids, especially when first waking up in the morning, is a common sign of a bacterial infection [4, 8, 14, 16]. Sometimes there will be so much crusty eye discharge that it is difficult to open your eyes. Eyelid crust can also be caused by an acute or chronic infection of the eyelids.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Eye Discharge

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Do you feel like there is something in your eye?
  • Does anyone in your family have asthma, dermatitis, or allergies to pollen/animals/mold?
  • When you wake up in the morning (or from a nap) are your eyes crusty?
  • Does light bother your eyes more than usual?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out why you're having eye discharge

Eye Discharge Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced eye discharge have also experienced:

  • 6% Sore Throat
  • 6% Cough
  • 5% Eye Itch

People who have experienced eye discharge were most often matched with:

  • 57% Bacterial Conjunctivitis
  • 28% Acute Allergic Conjunctivitis
  • 14% Viral Conjunctivitis

People who have experienced eye discharge had symptoms persist for:

  • 34% Less than a week
  • 32% Less than a day
  • 18% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Eye Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out why you're having eye discharge

References

  1. Gamm DM, Albert DM. Eyeball. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Updated June 1, 2011. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Link.
  2. Albert DM, Gamm DM. Tear Duct and Glands. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Updated November 13, 2017. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Link.
  3. Dahl AA. Eye Strain. MedicineNet.com. Updated August 10, 2017. MedicineNet.com Link.
  4. Conjunctivities (Pink Eye). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated October 16, 2017. CDC Link.
  5. Lusby FW. Corneal Ulcers and Infections. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published August 20, 2016. MedlinePlus Link.
  6. Goodman M. Eyelid Infections. Health24. Updated February 13, 2015. Health24 Link.
  7. Eye Allergies (Allergic Conjunctivitis). Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Published October 2015. AAFA Link.
  8. Kraus CL. Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published April 28, 2016. AAO Link.
  9. Adler R. Understanding Dry Eye Syndrome. AllAboutVision.com. Updated December 2016. AllAboutVision.com Link.
  10. Lusby FW. Eye - Foreign Object In. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published December 2, 2017. MedlinePlus Link.
  11. Lusby FW. Dry Eye Syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published December 19, 2016. MedlinePlus Link.
  12. Contact Lens Risk. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Updated September 4, 2018. FDA Link.
  13. Lusby FW. Eye Emergencies. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated May 10, 2017. MedlinePlus Link.
  14. Boyd K. Conjunctivitis: What is Pink Eye? American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published August 22, 2018. AAO Link.
  15. Hayes K. Causes of Goopy Eye Discharge. Verywell. Updated August 1, 2018. Verywell Link.
  16. Conjunctivitis. American Optometric Association. AOA Link.
  17. Difference Between an Ophthalmologist, Optometrist and Optician. American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Published 2011. AAPOS Link.
  18. Albert DM. Eye Disease. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Updated January 22, 2018. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Link.