QUESTION: “Hi, Dr. Neal, my name is Karen, and my question to you is this: should I be concerned for having excess eye boogers? I have them a lot in the morning and throughout the day. I just wanted to get your Insight on what that means or why my body produces them — you know, that nasty yellowish stuff on the corner of your eye. Thank you so much. I love your podcast. Have a great day, bye-bye.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, Karen.
You’re right that those eye boogers, or eye goop, or eye crusties, or whatever we call them are normal. But does this mean that if you create too much, it’s a problem?
Well, the answer to that is… it depends. What a perfectly vague response, right?
Well, I’ll explain.
Editor's Note: We have six shows in our podcast network to optimize your life in multiple areas (health, personal finance, and more).
To learn more, visit our “start here” page or click on each logo below to learn more about each show!
What Are Eye Boogers, Anyway?
So, as you already knew, Karen – those eye boogers that we often wake up with are very normal and natural. When we’re awake, we’re constantly blinking.
Side note: now that I’ve made you think about blinking, for the next few minutes don’t be surprised if you become hyper-focused on your blinking and how often it happens. You have me to thank for that. Sorry! Keep listening and you’ll forget all about it, I promise.
Back to eye boogers – when we blink, we are automatically moving naturally-produced mucus away from the eye. This mucus, which is officially called rheum, also gathers tiny pieces of dirt and other debris so that it doesn’t get into the eye. But when we’re asleep, we don’t blink. So that means we’re no longer pushing mucus away from the eye. Instead, that mucus collects and can dry when we sleep.
I should mention that it’s also very natural for that mucus to not completely dry but may be thin and watery or even clear and slightly sticky.
When Eye Boogers May Be A Problem
Now, there are situations where eye crust in the mornings may signal a problem. If you wake up and your eyes feel like they're stuck together, that’s not normal. That may be a sign there’s something else going on – it could be something as simple as allergies aggravating your eyes which may lead to more mucus production.
Having chronic dry eyes could also lead to more eye boogers. This is because the eyes try to compensate for this dryness by producing even more tears, which can also contain a bit of mucus. When this happens at night, you may end up producing more of these eye boogers. Or, this could be a sign of something as nasty as “pink eye” (which has a more official, fancy-sounding name: conjunctivitis; this just translates to “inflammation of the conjunctiva” where the conjunctiva just refers to a specific portion of the eye).
If your eyes secrete a fluid that’s gray, green, or yellow and extra thick, it may mean that pink eye has set in. Now, there are different types of pink eye – some forms are caused by a virus. Others are caused by bacteria. Either way, if the pink eye is caused by a virus or by bacteria, it’s very contagious.
So it’s super-important to stay away from others and wash your hands frequently and of course, see a healthcare professional.
Potential Causes of Pink Eye
Now, what could cause a virus or bacteria to get into our eyes? Our eyes are pretty good at getting rid of potentially harmful substances on their own through mucus and tear production and through blinking. But, if we say, rub our eyes with unwashed hands… well, now we could be exposing our eyes to harmful pathogens. You’ve heard that it’s not a good idea to touch your face, especially your mouth, nose, ears, and eyes with unwashed hands. This advice is especially important during the pandemic.
Our hands can carry harmful bacteria and viruses and touching our face can introduce those potentially harmful pathogens into the body. And when we think about waking up with eye boogers, it’s so tempting to want to rub our eyes. Waking up with eye boogers isn’t the most comfortable feeling, after all, so it’s common to want to rub or wipe our eyes as soon as we can.
But again, if we rub our eyes with unwashed hands, we can introduce viruses and bacteria into the area. This can lead to inflammation of the conjunctiva, which we now know is called pink eye. So, what should we do?
How to Properly Clean Eye Boogers
We can rub our eyes, but there’s the right way to do it. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, first wash your hands – duh. But instead of using your hands to remove those pesky eye boogers, use a clean washcloth. They recommend using a warm washcloth, not too hot though. This is because the skin that makes up our eyelids is really thin. If the temperature is too hot, it can actually damage the eyelids and the eyes themselves. Once the washcloth is soaked in warm water, spread the washcloth across your eyes and then gently rub them. Once you’re done, be sure to wash your hands again.
If you’re concerned that you’re producing too many eye boogers, it’s always a good idea to ask your Optometrist or Ophthalmologist. Plus, having our vision checked once a year to make sure everything is in working order is a good idea anyway.