People may use the term sticky eyes to describe when a wet or sticky discharge causes the eyelid to feel as though it is stuck together. The condition can occur due to various conditions that affect the eyes, such as styes, conjunctivitis, and blepharitis.

However, it is normal to have some crustiness around the eyes at times when waking up.

In this article, we discuss the possible causes of sticky eyes. We also look at the treatment options and ways to prevent sticky eyes from occurring.

“Sticky eyes” is one way a person may refer to discharge from the eyes that feels gooey, crusty, or sticky.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, waking up with some sticky or crustiness around the eyes is normal. This discharge is the result of not blinking during the night and various debris and mucus depositing at the corners of the eyes.

In some cases, medical conditions may cause the eyes to develop a crusty, sticky layer of mucus.

Medical conditions such as blepharitis, dry eye, and conjunctivitis are common causes of sticky eyes.

Blepharitis is a common condition that causes the eyelids to become:

  • red or discolored
  • itchy
  • swollen

It can also cause crusty flakes to appear on the eyelashes.

It typically occurs when a person has too much bacteria on their eyelids at the base of their eyelashes. It can also happen if the oil glands in the eyelids become blocked.

There are two types of blepharitis: anterior and posterior.

Anterior blepharitis develops due to bacteria on the skin or dandruff. It affects the outside of the eye, where a person’s eyelashes attach to the eyelid.

Posterior blepharitis occurs when the oil glands become clogged. It affects the inner edge of a person’s eyelid.

Other symptoms can include:

  • light sensitivity
  • excessive tearing
  • foamy tears
  • watery eyes
  • itchy eyes
  • a feeling of something being in the eye
  • dry eye
  • crusting of the eyelids

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), without treatment, it can lead to other issues, such as blurry vision, missing eyelashes, inflammation, or secondary infections.

Learn more about blepharitis here.

Treatment

Treatment can vary depending on the type of blepharitis, but it typically involves:

  • warm compresses
  • keeping the eyelids clean
  • antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • eye drops
  • dandruff shampoo
  • keeping the glands clean and clear

Conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye, is an infection that causes symptoms such as:

  • swelling of the conjunctiva or eyelids
  • pink or red color in the white of the eye
  • the feeling of an object in the eye or the urge to rub the eye
  • increased tear production
  • difficulty wearing contacts
  • crusting of the eyelids and lashes
  • irritation, itching, or burning in the eye
  • pus or mucus discharge

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that there are three main causes of pinkeye: allergens, viruses, and bacteria.

Learn more about infective conjunctivitis here.

Treatment

Treatment for the condition can vary depending on the cause.

For bacterial causes, a doctor may prescribe antibacterial ointment or eye drops.

A person can treat allergic conjunctivitis using topical antihistamines and vasoconstrictors in the form of eye drops.

Viral conjunctivitis will typically resolve without treatment. However, for more serious forms, a person may require antiviral medications.

A person should also avoid wearing contact lenses and use a cold compress to soothe symptoms.

Parents or caregivers of children with conjunctivitis should take them to see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.

Learn more about how to treat pinkeye at home.

A stye is a painful bump that appears on the eyelid due to a blocked oil gland or bacterial infection.

The symptoms of a stye include:

  • a painful bump along the edge of the eyelid
  • a small spot of pus at the center of the bump
  • a scratchy sensation in the eye
  • light sensitivity
  • excess tearing
  • crustiness along the margin of the eyelid

Learn more about styes here.

Treatment

Treatment includes warm compresses, but if there are signs of infection, it is important to see a doctor to get antibiotics.

Dacryocystitis is the infection of the lacrimal sacs, or tear sacs. It typically occurs just after birth or in adults who are older than 40 years.

In infants, it occurs due to abnormalities in the tear ducts, such as a blockage.

In adults, it can occur due to infection, trauma, nasal abscesses, and bacteria, such as Streptococcus.

The symptoms can include:

  • tenderness and swelling
  • excess tears
  • fever
  • thick discharge from the eye
  • swelling near the inner corner of the eye

Learn more about dacryocystitis here.

Treatment

Treatment includes warm compresses and antibiotics.

A person can also perform a Crigler massage on themselves or the affected infant. They can do this by placing the index finger in the corner of the eye and rolling the finger downward. It is important to wash the hands thoroughly before and after doing this.

Chronic dry eye occurs when the eyes do not produce enough tears. According to the AOA, causes can include either poor quality tears or not enough tears. Common symptoms can include:

  • blurry vision
  • watery eyes
  • burning or stinging sensation
  • sensitivity to light
  • redness on the whites of the eye

Learn more about dry eye here.

Treatment

Common treatments include:

  • artificial tears
  • conserving tears
  • treating other conditions around the eyes causing the issue
  • increasing tear production

Several other conditions may cause sticky eyes to form. These can include:

  • foreign objects in the eye
  • unclean contact lenses
  • damage or injury to the eyes

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience sticky or crusty eyelids or lashes. A person’s doctor can diagnose and recommend treatment for the underlying condition, which will help the crusty eye clear.

Sticky eyes are common in newborns and young children. They can occur due to a blocked tear duct. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), 1 in 5 babies are born with tear ducts that have not yet fully developed.

A parent or caregiver may notice sticky substances in the corner of the eyes or see that the eyelashes have clumped together. It can affect one or both eyes.

Although the blocked tear duct will usually clear up without any intervention, a parent or caregiver may need to clean the baby’s eyes using a clean piece of cotton wool.

In some cases, people may confuse a blocked tear duct with conjunctivitis. Anyone who notices discharge alongside red or pink whites of the eyes in a child in their care should take them to see a doctor.

If the whites of the eyes do not turn red or pink, the cause is likely to be a blocked tear duct.

Another cause of sticky eyes in babies is dacryocystitis. A parent or caregiver should contact a healthcare professional if they suspect this condition, as antibiotics may be necessary.

Hot or cold compresses can help soothe the symptoms of sticky eyes. A person can use a dampened washcloth using either hot or cold water for temporary relief. A cloth can also help with cleaning the eye. However, if only one eye is sticky, it is important to avoid using the washcloth to wipe the other eye, as doing this might spread the infection.

Artificial tears may also help in some situations. A person should speak with a doctor before using artificial tears if they are unsure of the exact cause of the irritation.

A person should avoid wearing contacts when their eyes or the areas around their eyes have become irritated. Contacts can further irritate the eyes.

If an infant or child has a new or persistent sticky eye, it is best to take them to see a doctor.

The prevention of sticky eyes is not always possible. A person should follow good hygiene routines when it comes to their eyes to avoid potential infections, such as pinkeye or blepharitis.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends always cleaning the hands before touching or cleaning the eyes.

People who wear contacts should follow safety routines when handling their eyes and contacts. The CDC recommends that people protect their eye health by:

  • rubbing and rinsing contacts in a clean solution after each use
  • using only contact solution to clean the case or contacts
  • disposing of excess solution and drying the case with a clean paper towel
  • washing the hands thoroughly every time before handling the contacts or eyes

A person should contact a doctor if they have persistent symptoms of eye or eyelid irritation, such as discoloration or swelling that does not go away.

It is possible that home treatments, such as warm or cold compresses, may work to help treat any underlying condition without the need for additional treatment.

A person should let a doctor know if their eye condition is getting worse even after treatment. A doctor will likely want to examine the eye and determine the cause of the continued irritation.

Sticky eyes occur when too much mucus or discharge from the eyes builds up on the eyelid and lashes, causing a crusty or sticky feeling.

The condition itself is easy to treat with a clean washcloth, but it is likely the result of an underlying condition that may need additional treatment.

In cases of infection, a person may need antibiotics or additional medications to help while the infection clears. When in doubt, a person should speak with a doctor about their symptoms to determine whether further treatment is necessary.