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Pink eye with a side of mucus

Alice,

I've had a really nasty cold for about twelve days now. Yesterday I started waking up with a lot of sticky mucus type stuff under my eyelashes, and now my eyes are red and watering all the time. Should I be concerned? Is there something besides warm water (which seems to help for a few minutes) that I can do?

Dear Reader,  

Pretty in pink? Not so much when it's pink in the eyes with a side of mucus. There are a number of conditions linked to the symptoms you describe — each with their own causes and recommended remedies (more on these in a bit). While most of these conditions are more of a nuisance than a reason for concern, some may be tied to other health conditions or have long-term impacts on vision. Working with a health care provider is the best way to get a proper diagnosis and get linked to treatments to ease your discomfort and potentially prevent the symptoms from getting worse.  

The symptoms you describe — eye redness, mucus, and watering — could have a variety of sources or could be the symptom of other conditions, such as:  

  • Conjunctivitis (often known as “pink eye”) is a common infection or inflammation of the transparent membrane around the eyeball and inner eyelid (conjunctiva). Symptoms include redness, irritation, discharge that forms a crust, increased tears, and a gritty sand-like sensation. Causes include bacteria or viral infections (including the common cold), allergies, and irritation (such as extended contact lens use). It’s highly contagious via hand-to-eye contact and by way of items such as towels. While it may clear up on its own in about a week, this can also be treated with prescription medication or at-home remedies such as a cool water compress.  
  • Allergic conjunctivitis is conjunctivitis caused by an immune system reaction to foreign substances, sometimes called triggers. Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis is associated with seasonal irritants such as pollen, trees, and grass while perennial allergic conjunctivitis is associated with dust, mold, and animal dander that occur year-round. Symptoms include itchiness, redness, increased tears, and swelling. For more information, you may want to check out the Go Ask Alice! Q&A Seasonal allergy eye relief?  
  • Styes, which are small, red, painful bumps that resembles a pimple on the outside or inside of the eyelid. Other symptoms include swelling or pain in the eyelid and tearing. It’s typically caused by a blockage in the eyelid’s oil gland, called a chalazion. Styes typically resolve on their own, though a warm compress can be applied for several minutes to reduce discomfort.  
  • Iritis, which is inflammation and swelling in the colored ring of the eye (iris) that often occurs suddenly and can last up to three months. Symptoms include redness, light sensitivity, achiness, and impaired vision. Untreated iritis poses the risk of glaucoma and vision loss, so it’s best to seek immediate medical care.
  • Blepharitis, which is inflammation on the edges of the eyelids, caused by clogged oil glands close to the eyelashes. For some people, blepharitis may be an ongoing condition, though it’s not contagious and doesn’t pose a risk of hampering eyesight. Symptoms are usually more intense in the morning and include redness, tears, swelling, changes in blinking (sticking or more frequent), and changes in vision (blurry vision or light sensitivity). It may occur alongside other eye conditions, such as a sty or conjunctivitis.    

While many eye-irritating conditions share symptoms, they have distinct causes and may require different treatments. That being said, there are some tips that may be applicable in all cases. For instance, if you wear contact lenses, you may consider taking a break from wearing them to reduce further irritation. To prevent the onset of an eye condition, or in some cases the transmission to others, there are several universally recommended hygiene tips (which can also help to prevent other infections!) you can try:  

  • Avoid touching the eyes with hands: Instead, you may try using tissues or cotton balls to wipe your eyes. Be sure to use a fresh one for each eye and dispose of them after each use.  
  • Wash your hands regularly and correctly: To learn the proper handwashing technique, check out the Go Ask Alice! Q&A Soap and water: Proper handwashing fodder.  
  • Change linens often: Use a clean towel or wash cloth each day and change your pillowcase frequently.  
  • Use your own products: Avoid sharing eye cosmetics, eye-care items such as eye drops, and towels or wash cloths.  
  • Clean or toss any contaminated products: If your eye condition turns out to be infectious, such as pink eye, reusing items can cause re-infection. It’s best to toss out any eye cosmetics, such as mascara, and disinfect any sunglasses or eye gear if you've had pink eye.  

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.  

Keep your eyes clear, dazzling, and free from mucus with good hygiene and proper treatment. It’s worth mentioning that working with a health care provider (such as an ophthalmologist) is the best way to get properly diagnosed and connected with recommendations for at-home remedies, prescription medications, or additional treatment. While eye irritations are never pleasant, at least they can’t be transmitted by staring longingly into someone’s eyes!  

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Last updated Feb 05, 2024
Originally published Apr 25, 1997

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