The eyes generate many different kinds of mucus, it’s a part of normal functioning to ensure that they remain clean and hydrated. Sometimes, however, we can experience a build up of mucus; this may be normal, like the crusty mucus we brush away in the morning, or it could be indicative of illness.
What are mucus strings in eyes?
Mucus strings themselves are defined as an excess of sticky, white mucus which coagulates to form strings under the eyelid or inside the eye.
An excess of mucus can be symptomatic of dry eyes, when the eye isn’t getting the lubricant it needs and so tries to compensate for this. Excessive tearing or a watery eye may also be experienced.
Reddening of the eye, or pink eye, may be an accompanying symptom. Irritation or itchy eyes are frequently reported also.
Causes of mucus strings in the eye can include:
- Bacterial or viral infection
- Clogged tear ducts
- Blepharitis, an eyelid infection
- Mucus Fishing Syndrome
Mucus strings are commonly due to a form of conjunctivitis such as one triggered by an allergy (allergic conjunctivitis). Often called viral pink eye, conjunctivitis is an inflammation or infection of the membrane that lines the eyeball. It is characterised by irritation and a reddening of the white of the eye, hence the name pink eye. 80% of cases of acute conjunctivitis are caused by viral infection, it is less commonly caused by a bacterial infection.1
The reasons for contracting a bacterial eye infection vary. It may be caused by immune deficiencies, overuse of contact lenses or some other means of stimulating bacterial growth.
Viral eye infections also have a number of causes, a common one being pink eye. Less commonly, herpes, hepatitis C and HIV are known to cause dry eyes and excessive mucus production.2
Blocked tear ducts prevent the eye from draining normally and results in watery eyes and abnormal eye discharge often brought about by injury or bacterial infection.
Eyelid infection, blepharitis, is commonly recognizable by a swelling of the eyelid, usually both at once. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious and won’t cause any permanent damage.
Mucus Fishing Syndrome is psychological in nature. It refers to a habitual condition whereby a person experiences abnormal discharge from the eye, likely due to one of the conditions listed above, they then seek to remove the mucus (by fishing it out), which in turn causes further irritation and the production of yet more mucus. This becomes a vicious cycle of clearing the eye and the eye trying to rebalance.
In the words of Morrow and Abbott (1998), “a serous discharge is most commonly associated with viral or allergic ocular conditions. A mucoid (stringy or ropy) discharge is highly characteristic of allergy or dry eyes. A muco-purulent or purulent discharge, often associated with morning crusting and difficulty opening the eyelids, strongly suggests a bacterial infection.”3
Symptoms can overlap. Conjunctivitis always comes with reddening of the eye or swelling. It may be viral conjunctivitis if it comes with a cold or an infection that brings up phlegm, bacterial if it is accompanied by an ear infection or allergic conjunctivitis if it brings about intensely itchy eyes.
Most causes of stringy eye mucus aren’t serious and will pass on their own after a few days. That being said, there are a number of ways that we can aid our eye’s natural recovery.
Don’t aggressively remove mucus strings, this can cause irritation and prolong the condition (See complications below).
Sometimes the abnormal discharge is symptomatic of a more serious illness, this is when we mustn’t hesitate to consult a doctor.
How to get rid of mucus strings in eyes
Ways of resolving excess mucus are dependent on the cause. Preventing further irritation will help. If you’re wearing contact lenses then take them out and avoid using them until your symptoms have subsided; the same goes for eye makeup – remove it to reduce irritation.
A cold compress can be used to reduce inflammation should this be a symptom, as with blepharitis and allergic conjunctivitis. We can also use a clean towel, wetted with warm water, or cotton wool buds soaked in water to gently wipe away excess mucus and clean the eyelashes and eyelids externally.
As well as being a natural beauty treatment, tea bags can be used as an anti-inflammatory to treat a number of eye conditions. The natural anti-inflammatory properties of chamomile, green and black teas can reduce eye swelling and discomfort. Remember to let the tea bag cool before placing it on the eye.
Salt water is a natural antibacterial and can be used to prevent further bacterial growth in the eye. You can make your own saline solution at home using just salt and water, this can be used to clean the lids and lashes and also flush the eye to wash away excess mucus.
Honey dissolved in water can provide similar relief. Honey is a natural anti-inflammatory and possesses antibacterial properties – useful to both reduce swelling and fight infection. There is some evidence to suggest that this natural method can be used to treat allergic conjunctivitis.4 Honey eye drops can also be made at home using the correct measures of honey and water. Do not put raw honey directly into the eye. The viscosity of raw honey will make it difficult for the eye to clear away and will cause irritation
Hydrating eye drops, such as saline solution, can be bought over the counter and will act to clean the eye and tear ducts. This aids the eye in its natural method of cleaning itself. Ibuprofen, as an anti-inflammatory, and other over-the-counter painkillers can be used to reduce swelling and discomfort.
Bacterial conjunctivitis, as with any bacterial infection, can be treated with prescribed antibiotics. There is no known treatment for viral pink eye but it should go away on its own within a couple of weeks.
Other ways to take care of the eyes
Blinking whilst awake helps clear excess mucus from the eyes. Whilst we’re asleep mucus is no longer cleared from the eye and so it is normal to experience a larger build up in the morning. Clear away this morning mucus, or “sleep”, with a clean, damp cloth.
Don’t over wear contact lenses. This can put strain on the eye and raise the risk of contracting a bacterial infection. Also make sure to follow advice and clean contact lenses thoroughly after use.
A healthy lifestyle promotes good eye health. Try to eat well, exercise regularly and avoid smoking. Smoking can do serious damage to the eye: it can triple the risk of developing cataracts and increase the probability of developing eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration.
Conjunctivitis can be a highly contagious viral infection. To prevent itsspread, it is advised to wash pillowcases and bedding regularly, as well as ensuring hands are clean and keeping eye touching to a minimum. Throw away contact lenses and eye makeup used on infected eyes.
A common complication associated with the manual removal of stringy mucus from the eye is Mucus Fishing Syndrome (see above).
When to seek a doctor
The Mayo clinic states that a person should seek emergency medical assistance should they experience any of the following alongside an eye condition: fever, severe headache, sensitivity to light, eye pain, or nausea and vomiting.
The NHS advise booking an appointment with a doctor if symptoms haven’t cleared up after two weeks.
If you’re concerned about the nature of your eye condition, if symptoms don’t seem to be improving over time or if you’re in severe discomfort, seek the advice of a medical professional.
Stringy eye mucus can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions from one of the three forms of conjunctivitis, some other bacterial infection, to self infliction as with Mucus Fishing Syndrome.
There are many causes for the buildup of excess mucus, some are more serious than others, but much of the time stringy eye mucus is caused by viral conjunctivitis which will clear on its own. If the condition worsens or doesn’t get better after two, seek medical advice.
- Azari AA, Barney NP. Conjunctivitis. JAMA [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2023 Aug 14]; 310(16):1721–9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049531/.
- Alves M, Angerami RN, Rocha EM. Dry eye disease caused by viral infection: review. Arq Bras Oftalmol [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2023 Aug 14]; 76:129–32. Available from: https://www.scielo.br/j/abo/a/kMzJBxf3vrRW4ZwGKCqNctk/.
- Morrow GL, Abbott RL. Conjunctivitis. afp [Internet]. 1998 [cited 2023 Aug 14]; 57(4):735–46. Available from: https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/1998/0215/p735.html.
- Salehi A, Jabarzare S, Neurmohamadi M, Kheiri S, Rafieian-Kopaei M. A Double Blind Clinical Trial on the Efficacy of Honey Drop in Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2023 Aug 14]; 2014:287540. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3953621/.