Kids Want to Know: What Are Eye Boogers?


Moms call it “sleep” and doctors call it “rheum.” Overheard yesterday, a kid asked his dad, “what are eye boogers?” Science says that no matter what it is called, the crusty stuff that collects in everyone’s eyes as they slumber is made of a variety of human refuse. The eyelid can be compared to a zipper. It closes from cheek to nose. As it does this, tears are pushed along the surface of the eye. Tiny particles of materials are pushed with the “zipper” action. The matter is collected primarily in the corner of the eye, where it dries out.

University of California at Davis professor of ophthalmology, Dr. Ivan Schwab, says that the materials are mucus, discarded cells and various types of debris, like dust, makeup, oil and bacteria. He explains that the process activated by the eye closing is akin to exfoliation for the skin. Unwanted debris on the surface of the eye is essentially swept off.

Schwab also says that “sleep” is not sterile. He recommends washing hands after wiping the sleep from eyes in the morning. A better option for eye cleaning, however, is applying a washcloth that is wet with warm water.

Healthy “sleep” is slightly cream-hued. Makeup can make it look darker. If the body is fighting a viral or bacterial infection, the color will be either yellowish or green-hued. It is likely that the eye will be producing a greater amount of the discharge as well. An eye doctor is recommended for attending to that unhealthy condition.

Dry “sleep” is merely an indicator of an arid environment. Schwab adds that allergy sufferers tend to experience increases in “sleep” due to the increase in mucus. He points out that eyes produce mucus as a response to various allergens floating around in the air. Pollen will get in the eyes, causing the eyes to produce mucus. The mucus will surround the pollen and the eyelid moves it to the corner.

Wearers of contact lenses could also experience greater amounts of “sleep.” This is because the eye “sees” the lens as an intruder. Even when the lenses are a perfect fit, a little extra production of mucus will occur. When the lenses are not the correct size and shape, they will trap debris between the lens and eye, and the eye will react by producing much more mucus.

A change in the level of “sleep” produced can be an indicator of a possible infection. When there is a preponderance of discharge that does not vary, this may be from allergies or dust in the environment. When there is so much discharge that it is difficult to open the eyes, this may be an indicator of a disorder called blepharitis. This is an eyelid issue that is caused either by low-grade inflammation of the hair follicles of the lash or oil production of the meibomian glands that is abnormal.

Knowing what the eye should and should not be excreting can help to guarantee healthy eyes. Now, when kids ask what exactly “eye boogers” are, there is a choice between the truth, which to some less science-minded youngsters may be boring, and the fantastical answer, “a unicorn must have sneezed on you while you were sleeping.”

By Stacy Lamy


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