Crusty eyes in the morning can be normal. But if the gunk seems like it's getting out of control, there's probably a reason for that.
Eye crusts form during sleep because we aren't blinking, explains Nathan Langemo, OD, an optometrist at Hopkins Eye Clinic in Hopkins, Minnesota. When your eyes stay closed for long stretches, normal discharge consisting of water, oil and mucus can build up around the eye corners and lash lines. As a result, your eyes might be a little crusty, sticky or teary when you first open them.
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Certain conditions can cause your eyes to produce more discharge than normal, though, which can translate to more eye goop or crud when you wake up. Here's a look at what might be pestering your peepers and what to do about it.
1. You Have Dry Eye
Dry eye happens when your eyes don't produce enough water and oils to keep your eyes well lubricated. The lack of moisture can cause your eyes to become irritated, which can lead to problems like sensitivity, burning, redness and stringy mucous or discharge. Overnight, that discharge can dry up and form crusts around your eyes.
"It's one of the most common causes of excessive crusts upon waking," says Dr. Langemo.
Fix it: Artificial tears and a few lifestyle adjustments (like taking screen breaks) might be enough to manage dry eye, according to the Mayo Clinic. If your doctor determines that your dry eye is caused by an underlying condition, they might recommend prescription meds to reduce eye inflammation or boost your eyes' tear production.
2. You Have Seasonal Allergies
Irritants like pollen, dust or mold can make your eyes red, itchy, watery or mucus-y during the day. And when the discharge builds up overnight, it can make your eyes extra crusty or sticky in the morning, says Barrett Eubanks, MD, an ophthalmologist in Murrieta, California.
Fix it: Applying a warm, clean washcloth to your eyes for a minute or two can help you de-gunk and ease irritation. But you'll need to stick with good allergy-management habits to keep the crusts from coming back. That includes avoiding exposure to your allergen as much as possible and talking with your doctor about allergy medications or anti-allergy eyedrops, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
3. You Have Pink Eye
This common eye infection can make your eyes produce a lot of mucus and pus (not to mention cause redness, pain, itching, sensitivity to light and a sensation like something is stuck in your eye). "This extra discharge is too much for the usual eye drain to handle. It builds up on the eyelashes and in the corners of the eye as extra eye crusts," Dr. Eubanks says.
Fix it: Most cases of pink eye are viral and will go away on their own within a week or two. If your pink eye is bacterial, your doctor might prescribe antibiotic eye drops to fight off the infection. (Bacterial pink eye usually causes more pus than viral pink eye, but it's a good idea to have your eyes checked so your doc can determine what you're dealing with.)
In both cases, putting a cool, damp compress on your eyes can break up the extra crusts and make your eyes feel a little more comfortable, per the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). (Here are more home remedies for pink eye.)
4. You Have Blepharitis
Not everyone is familiar with blepharitis, a bacteria buildup on the eyelid that causes crusty, dandruff-like flakes to develop on the eyelids. But it's another common reason for waking up with crusty eyes, Dr. Langemo says. The problem can also make your eyes burn or sting, cause sensitivity to light or cause tears that are foamy or bubbly. It often occurs alongside problems like rosacea or dandruff.
Fix it: Blepharitis is a chronic condition, but you can manage it by keeping your eyelids clean and crust-free. The best way to do that is by cleaning your eyelids and eyelashes regularly with a soft cloth, warm water and mild baby shampoo, according to the National Eye Institute. Your doctor might also recommend eye drops to manage redness or discomfort as well as antibiotics.
5. You Have a Stye
Styes are red, pimple-like bumps that form when an oil gland around the eyelid becomes blocked and infected. Your eye produces more tears, mucus and oil to fight the infection, which can build up around the eye and cause crusting, Dr. Langemo explains.
Fix it: Styes usually heal on their own within a few weeks. But you can speed the process along.
First, apply a warm, damp washcloth to your eyelids to remove any surface crust. Then apply a warm eye gel pack to the affected area for five minutes. (Try the Up & Up Hot + Cold Gel Bead Eye Mask, $8.79 at Target.) "A warm compress that consists of a damp washcloth does not suffice because it does not allow for five minutes of sustained heat [the way gel packs can]," Dr. Lanegmo says.
Here are more home remedies for a stye, and a word of caution: Don't try to pop the stye since doing so can spread the infection to your other eye.
6. You Have a Blocked Tear Duct
Blocked tear ducts, which happen when your eyes can't drain normally, can make your eye excessively watery and inflamed and lead to mucus or crusting. The problem most often affects newborns, but it can also occur because of age-related eye changes, infections, trauma to the eye or as a side effect from chemotherapy, per the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: Blocked tears ducts may require surgery to fix, so see your doctor to discuss your options. In the meantime, take steps to manage the crusts. "It's best to use a clean, wet washcloth and lightly dab the extra crustiness on the eyes and eyelids," Dr. Eubanks says.
7. You Have Another Eye Infection
Pink eye and styes aren't the only infections that can affect your eyes. There are a number of bugs that can make your eyes uncomfortable, teary and mucus-y or crusty — and some can potentially be serious.
Fix it: See your eye doctor if you suspect that you have an eye infection. They can examine your eyes to determine what's causing the infection and the best way to treat it.
When to Call the Doctor
A little bit of eye crust when you wake up isn't a big deal.
"However, if the crustiness is coating the eyelashes and making it hard to open the eyes, that could be a problem. Discharge during the day and crustiness forming at night could also indicate a problem," Dr. Eubanks says. In both cases, it's a good idea to have your eyes checked so you can figure out what's going on and decide on the best solution.
You should also see an eye doctor if you have green or yellow eye discharge, eye pain, swelling, sensitivity to light or new or unusual blurry vision, according to the Cleveland Clinic. These could be signs of an eye infection or another problem that may need treatment.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.