Dry eye occurs when the eyes do not produce enough tears, or the tears are not effective at keeping the eyes moist. When this occurs, people may experience symptoms such as sticky discharge.

Dry eye is a common eye condition that can cause symptoms such as scratching, stinging or burning sensations, blurred vision, sensitive red eyes, and a sticky discharge.

To help manage the condition, people can make lifestyle changes, such as reducing screen time and changing their dietary patterns. In more severe cases, they may require surgery or prescription eye drops.

Read on to learn more about the causes and treatments available for dry eye discharge.

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Research from 2022 states that dry eye occurs in an estimated 8.1% of people in the United States.

According to a 2015 study involving 400 ophthalmology outpatients, 87.5% of those with eye discharge had dry eye. Of those with dry eye, only about 3% experienced excess discharge.

Tears are vital for keeping the eyes clean and comfortable. Three layers make up each tear the eye produces:

  • water
  • meibum
  • mucus

The different elements of a tear work in balance to protect the eye from irritating or harmful elements and to keep it nourished. The meibum prevents water from evaporating, and mucus helps spread tears over the eye evenly.

Tears may be less nourishing if these elements fall out of balance due to dry eye disease. The water might evaporate quicker, or the tears might not reach all parts of the eye’s surface.

This can lead to mucus discharge and other symptoms, like itching, redness, and vision loss. Excess mucus near the eye might appear stringy or lead to watery eyes.

Research from 2015 notes that mucus clumping is a symptom of severe dry eye.

A balanced tear film is vital for eye health. The tear film is a layer of tears. Every time a person blinks, the eyelids spread this layer across the outer layer of the eye, known as the cornea.

The three tear film layers serve different purposes in protecting the eye:

  • Meibum (outer layer): The oily meibum prevents tears from evaporating and smooths the eye’s surface. This can protect the eye from harmful elements and dryness.
  • Water (middle layer): The middle layer is watery, keeping the eye moist and its tissue nourished.
  • Mucus (inner layer): This helps the tear film stick to the cornea.

People with dry eye have tears containing water that evaporates quicker or tears that do not contain enough water to begin with. As a result, the mucus and oil layers combine to become stringy, sticky, or gritty discharge.

People with dry eye might notice small amounts of mucus in the corner of the eye when they wake up.

However, the following factors can lead to excessive sticky or stringy mucus, in addition to dry eye:

  • bacterial infection
  • low quality meibum
  • a shortage of water-filled tears
  • allergy
  • trauma

If a person has an eye infection, they may notice excess yellow or green discharge that can stick the eyelids together.

Treatment for dry eye is important, as it can cause inflammation and damage the cornea if not addressed. A person might have a severe form of dry eye if they experience excess mucus discharge and eye inflammation.

There are several approaches to dry eye treatment depending on the underlying cause and its severity. Visiting a specialist eye doctor, known as an ophthalmologist, can help people with dry eye discharge manage the cause.

Treating severe dry eye

Several treatment options are available to help the eyes produce more tears or hold on to tears for longer. These may include:

  • Prescription eye drops: Medications like lifitegrast (Xiidra) or cyclosporine (Restasis) can help the tear ducts make more tears.
  • Tear duct plugs: If the tears drain from the eye too quickly, contributing to dry eye discharge, an eye doctor may recommend inserting tiny plugs into the tear ducts to prevent tears from draining.
  • Surgery: If loose lower eyelids are contributing to dry eye, doctors may recommend surgery to fix the eyelids. However, this is rare.

Dry eye can also occur due to other conditions, like lupus or Sjögren disease. Managing these conditions may help reduce the effects on tear production and drainage.

Lifestyle tips

Discharge can be a result of severe dry eye. To manage this symptom, people should aim to keep their eyes as moist and nourished as possible throughout the day.

The following lifestyle tips might provide some relief:

  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops: This option may be generally effective for dry eye of any cause.
  • Blink regularly: A 2017 study found that people blinked less and gradually experienced more eye discomfort during a 15-minute reading exercise on a tablet and paper. People should remember to blink during long periods of screen work.
  • Limit screen time: When possible, a person can aim to cut down the length of time spent looking at a screen and take regular breaks.
  • Increase humidity in the environment: Using an air humidifier at home and at work can help keep the air moist.
  • Protect the eyes outdoors: Wearing sunglasses (preferably wraparound) can serve as a barrier to harmful ultraviolet sun rays and dry wind.
  • Try nutritional supplements: Taking omega-3 fatty acids might help dry eye symptoms in some people.
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration can make dry eye worse. Individuals should plan to drink enough water every day to make stay hydrated.
  • Avoid dry or irritating environments: Planes, deserts, and high altitudes can be dry and hard on the eyes. Smoke and wind can also dry out the eyes, so people should try to limit their exposure.

Addressing dry eye before it becomes severe can improve comfort and reduce the risk of long-term vision concerns and corneal damage.

It is advisable for a person to consult an eye specialist if their eyes feel dry, itchy, or scratchy for long periods and in ways that affect their daily activities.

Dry eye causes imbalances in the content of tears. If water evaporates or drains too quickly from tears, or the eye produces too little of it, the mucus and oil of the eye’s tear layer combine to produce a sticky discharge. This usually appears in small amounts in the morning. Excess yellow or green discharge is more likely to be a sign of infection.

Prescription eye drops, tear duct plugs, and surgical options are all available to treat severe dry eye. Lifestyle changes that could help include trying OTC eye drops, managing screen time, and reducing exposure to irritating environmental factors.