What is eye discharge?
Eye discharge is the secretion of liquids or other substances, besides tears, from the eyes. Discharge from the eyes may make it difficult to open the eyelids if they have been shut for extended periods, such as during sleep. This effect may be temporary or persistent.
Eye discharge can vary in color and consistency, depending on the underlying cause. Most discharge will be clear, green or yellow in color and can range in consistency from a liquid to a sticky, gel-like substance.
Eye discharge can be caused by a wide variety of conditions affecting the eye directly or from conditions that affect your whole body, such as the common cold. Eye discharge is often caused by allergies or infection. Although most causes of eye discharge are not serious, you should contact your health care provider if you have persistent or severe eye discharge, such as discharge that makes it difficult to open your eyes.
In most cases, eye discharge is not a serious condition. Persistent or severe discharge may be an indication of a serious underlying condition or disease. If eye discharge is persistent or severe or if you notice eye discharge for several days, even if it is temporary each day, or if your eye discharge causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with eye discharge?
Eye discharge may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. These symptoms may apply to the eyes or vision specifically, or they may be more general in nature.
Other eye or vision symptoms that may occur along with eye discharge
Eye discharge may accompany other symptoms affecting the eyes or vision including:
- Blurred or double vision
- Bump on the eyeball or eyelid
- Dry eyes
- Eye pain
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Itchy eyes and eyelids
- Red, sore eyes (bloodshot eyes)
- Watery eyes
General symptoms that may occur along with eye discharge
Eye discharge may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
- Body aches
- Cat scratch or bite
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose or nasal congestion
- Swollen lymph nodes in front of the ear
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
In some cases, eye discharge may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have eye discharge along with other serious symptoms including:
What causes eye discharge?
Eye discharge can be caused by a variety of conditions that range in severity from merely bothersome to vision threatening. If you have persistent or severe eye discharge, consult with your health care professional to determine the underlying cause and to get treatment as needed.
Common causes of eye discharge
Eye discharge may be caused by common events or conditions including:
- Blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin)
- Common cold
- Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye surface)
- Dry eyes
- Exposure of the eye to chemicals
- Eye infection (keratitis, endophthalmitis)
- Foreign body material (synthetic fiber, debris, etc.)
- Hay fever or allergic reaction from animal dander, dust, cosmetics or pollen
- Influenza (flu)
- Pinkeye (contagious viral eye infection)
Serious causes of eye discharge
In some cases, eye discharge may be a symptom of a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:
- Corneal abrasion or ulcer
- Neonatal conjunctivitis (may herald serious infection)
- Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)
- Periorbital cellulitis (infection of the eyelids or other soft tissue around the eyes)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of eye discharge
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your eye discharge including:
How long have you been experiencing eye discharge?
Do you have any other symptoms?
Have you had any vision changes?
Do you have allergies?
Do you have any other medical conditions?
How severe is your eye discharge (based on quantity of discharge or difficulty opening your eyes)?
Does your eye discharge last throughout the day?
What is the color and consistency of your eye discharge?
Eye discharge itself does not present serious complications, and many common causes of eye discharge, such as allergies or a common cold, are not serious. However, some causes of eye discharge may have sight-threatening, or even life-threatening, complications. For example, left untreated, corneal ulcer can lead to visual loss in the affected eye, and orbital cellulitis may lead to a brain infection. Once the underlying cause of your eye discharge is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Chronic eye discomfort
- Loss of vision or blindness
- Spread of infection