Crusty eyes occur when discharge from the eye dries on the lids, lashes, or corners of the eye, creating a crusty effect or sticky effect. Discharge happens during sleep but can also indicate dry eye, an allergic reaction, or an infection.
A small amount of discharge in the corners of the eyes is normal, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). However, sometimes eye discharge is a symptom of an eye infection or health condition.
A person should seek out medical attention if:
- their eye produces a large amount of discharge
- their eye produces green, yellow, or white discharge
- it is difficult to open the eye
- the eye is red, swollen, or painful
- they are sensitive to light
- they have blurry vision
In this article, we will look at the causes for crusty eyes, treatments, home remedies and self-care, and how to prevent crusty eyes.
People often refer to the small amount of discharge the eyes produce during the night as “sleep,” or “sleep eye.” This tiny pebble-like residue found in the corners of the eyes is not a cause for concern, as it is part of the eye’s protective barrier.
The eye produces a small amount of mucus and oils to stay moist. But during sleep, when a person is not blinking, the discharge can collect in the corners. The discharge can be crusty, sticky, thick, thin, white, clear, or slightly yellow.
Typically, a person with a small amount of sleep in their eyes upon waking does not require medical treatment unless they have other symptoms.
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is another common cause of crusty eyes. Viral or bacterial infection can cause pink eye.
Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious, so a person with this condition should take care to wash their hands thoroughly and avoid touching their eyes. The symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- pink, red or puffy eyes
- itchy or burning eyes
- watery eyes
- white, yellow, or green fluid discharge
- crust along the eyelids or eyelashes
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Allergic conjunctivitis has similar symptoms to viral or bacterial eye infections, but it is caused by an allergic reaction instead. Common allergens that cause eye symptoms include pollen, pet dander, and dust mites.
The symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis include:
- itchy eyes
- watery eyes
- eye discharge
- symptoms in both eyes
A person with allergies may find that their eyes produce more discharge when their symptoms flare up. When that discharge dries, the eye area may become crusty or sticky.
If a person suspects that they have an allergy, they should speak to a doctor to determine what they might be allergic to. Over-the-counter (OTC) artificial tears and allergy medications can ease itching and eye dryness.
If a person’s eyes do not produce enough tears, this may also cause crusty eyes. According to the AAO, dry eye causes:
- stinging or burning
- blurred vision
- a scratchy or gritty feeling in the eye
- strings of mucus in or around the eyes
- red or irritated eyes
- pain while wearing contact lenses
- more tears
It may seem counterintuitive that dry eye would cause more tears. However, this is the result of the eye overcompensating for the dryness by producing more moisture than usual.
The AAO advise that people with dry eye see an opthalmologist for an eye exam. They may recommend using hydrating eye drops or a humidifier in the home and avoiding irritants, including environmental triggers, such as cigarette smoke.
The AAO describe a stye as an inflamed oil gland on the rim of the eyelid that can cause crusty eyes. A stye looks similar to a pimple and produces:
To treat a stye, a person should apply a warm compress to the area several times a day. This will help drain the blocked pore. A doctor might prescribe an antibiotic ointment, drops, or a topical steroid to accelerate healing in some cases.
If a stye does not respond to these treatments, a doctor may surgically drain the stye. In rare cases, an untreated stye leads to infection in other parts of the eye.
Blocked tear duct
A blocked tear duct occurs when something obstructs the eye’s drainage system. This means tears cannot drain from the eye. This causes watery, irritated eyes, and sometimes leads to an eye infection.
The AAO list the following symptoms for an eye infection:
- eye mucus discharge
- crusty eyelashes and eyelids
- swelling, tenderness, and redness
- blurred vision
- blood-tinged tears
The AAO also say that an ophthalmologist should check for a blockage in someone with symptoms of a blocked tear duct and flush the eye out with fluid.
If the ophthalmologist suspects the blockage is due to an infection, they may prescribe antibiotics. If the blockage keeps coming back, a person may need surgery to widen the tear ducts.
Blocked tear ducts in babies
Babies often have blocked tear ducts during the first few years. Newborns, in particular, are prone to this condition because their tear ducts are less developed.
The blocked duct usually produces a sticky yellow or white substance along the eye, sometimes making it difficult for a baby to open their eyes.
Sometimes, the baby’s eye will become infected or irritated by the blocked tear duct and will need treatment from a doctor.
A person should use a damp, clean cotton ball to clean each eye. This will prevent spreading an infection from one eye to the other.
For most newborns, the ducts will open on their own within a few months. A doctor can irrigate the duct during this time to help with symptoms if necessary. They can also show new parents a facial massage technique that can encourage the ducts to open and help the tears drain away.
Blepharitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the eyelids. Other symptoms include:
- burning or soreness
- oily particles or crust along the eyelids and lashes
All people have bacteria and other microorganisms on their skin. However, according to the American Optometric Association, people with blepharitis may have more bacteria near the lash line than others or have an inflammatory reaction to them where others do not.
A person with blepharitis can manage the symptoms through good eye hygiene and, if appropriate, by treating the underlying cause. For example, if dandruff is causing blepharitis, treating the dandruff will improve symptoms.
- eye pain
- blurred vision
- sensitivity to light
- eye discharge
The treatment for crusty eyes will depend on the underlying cause. A person will need to see a doctor for the exact diagnosis and correct treatment.
Most doctors will treat crusty eyes with medication that fits the condition, such as:
- oral or topical antibiotics for bacterial infections
- antifungal medicines for fungal infections
- antiviral drugs for viral infections
- antihistamines for allergic reactions
If medication does not work for someone who has a stye or a blocked tear duct, a doctor may recommend surgery.
A person with symptoms of an eye condition must seek medical help to get the right treatment. This is especially true for infants with eye symptoms.
However, while waiting for the condition to improve, there are a few ways to manage crusty or sticky eyes at home.
Good eye hygiene may help improve crusty eyes. To wash the eyes, dilute baby shampoo (or other gentle soap you can tolerate) with warm water and gently apply it along the eyelashes, gently scrubbing for 15 seconds and then rinsing.
If a person is unsure what type of eye condition they have or have an infection that could be contagious, they should wash their hands for 20 seconds after touching the eye area. They also should not share or re-use washcloths, towels, or cotton wool that has touched the area.
To relieve symptoms of pink eye, dry eye, or styes, a person should use warm compresses and OTC eye drops for hydration. Pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen, may help with pain or swelling, but they will not treat an active infection.
A person with an eye infection should avoid using contact lenses, and only use a fresh pair once the infection has cleared. A person should also avoid using eye makeup and false eyelashes while they have an eye condition.
The main way to prevent crusty eyes is through eye hygiene. A person should wash their eyelid, eyelashes, eyebrows, and areas around the eyes with diluted baby shampoo.
If a person wears contact lenses, they should clean their hands before putting them in or taking them out and replace them regularly.
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To prevent eye conditions in babies, a person should:
- clean their baby’s hands and face often
- give their baby a facial massage to prevent tears from accumulating in blocked ducts
- use eye drops, if a doctor recommends them
- ensure the baby’s environment is clean and hygienic
A little eye discharge is relatively normal, especially after sleeping. However, crusty eyes could also indicate an infection or an allergy. A doctor will be able to make a diagnosis and prescribe the correct medication.
OTC medications and products, such as eye drops, pain medications, and antihistamines, may help improve the symptoms. However, the approach that works best will depend on the root cause.
A baby’s eyes are vulnerable to infection and blocked tear ducts during the first few months of life. If a baby has crusty eyes, caregivers should seek medical attention right away.