I am prone to annoying, goopy minor eye infections. This is entirely my own fault. I wear contacts lenses which I am totally lazy about cleaning and I use them longer than the recommended time frame. I also sometimes wear mascara which I use until it is all gone, rather than tossing it and using a new tube after the recommended interval. (I know! These are bad practices. I know it’s all my fault.)
I’m also a mother of two and we went through our share of pink eye and common cold or viral infections that included discharges from the eye. As practicing herbalist who treats a lot of acute, family illnesses, I also treat these conditions or recommend treatments to my little clients. The net result is that I’ve become pretty good at treating “goopy eye” topically with common herbs.
My Favorite Herbs for the Eyes
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) Fennel has long been used for eye troubles. Fennel is mentioned in the 17th century herbal by Culpeper where he suggests it for mattering in the eye and contemporary herbs users still find it equally useful for eye inflammation and infection. Fennel is rich in volatile oils. Volatile oils have a reputation for being anti-microbial, which may account for some of the usefulness of Fennel in treating goopy or inflammed eyes caused by an infection.
Chamomile– (multiple genera and species in use)The humble Chamomile species ends up being so useful for many bothersome health issues, including eye issues. Chamomile is soothing and anti-inflammatory. Plant constituent, azulene, reduces redness and like Fennel, Chamomile has anti-microbial volatile oils. Chamomile is cheap, easy to find, even at every open 24 hours, mainstream grocery store in America. Chamomile works well as a dried herb.
Chickweed (Stellaria spp.) Ooooh! This is one of my favorites. Chickweed is so soothing and cooling, a great anti-inflammatory. It’s also gentle, abundant, easy to identify. Chickweed, however, does not dry very well, so I only use it when it’s available fresh. If you have a chem-free lawn, you probably have some chickweed, especially if you have a moist shady spot. You can pick it before, during or after flowering, as long as the plant looks good and not ratty and dried out.
Plantain (Plantago majus) Plantain is also soothing and anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. Plantain is one of the most common and easily identified plants and can be found in every chemical free lawn. Plantain can be used fresh or dried. Plantain is a little bit astringent and an eyewash with Plantain alone can make your eyes feel a little bit puckery, so to speak. It’s good for drying up the goop but I find I like it best in combination with something a little more mucilaginous.
What about eyebright?
Eyebright is the famous herb for the eyes. Common names often reflect the way that people have used them. I don’t use eyebright. I favor local herbs and eyebright does not grow in my locale. It does grow in the arrowhead region of Minnesota and also in parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and other northeastern states. There is no reason not to use it. It’s just habit and personal preference that inform my practice.
Eye Wash Technique
Make a tea with your chosen herbs. Choose as many herbs as you like. There are no rules here. Choose your herbs based on what you have around you or what’s easy for you to acquire. It doesn’t have to be an extra strong tea. If you use fennel, crush the seeds lightly with a mortar and pestle so it can more easily give up it’s virtues to the water. (That’s what the old time writers would say, that an herb gives up it’s virtues to a particular menstruum.)
Let the tea cool. Room temperature eye wash is the most comfortable.
Strain the tea as you would normally strain it, but then strain it again this time through a regular paper coffee filter. Nothing catches particulate matter like a coffee filter. The use of chamomile and fennel in particular tend to result in a tea with bits of particulate matter. You don’t have to be obsessive about plant matter in your tea but it stands to reason that it’s better to put less little bits onto your delicate eyes.
Use a tincture dropper and simply squirt it into the eye. I use a dropper that fits a dram bottle and I usually drop a few drops at a time, pause for a moment and then drop in a few more. While it feels weird to intentionally squirt something in your eye, it shouldn’t hurt or sting. It will probably feel very good in the ensuing minutes.
Two or three times a day is sufficient in my experience. I think it’s possible to overdo it resulting in eyes that feel a little bit dried out.
Refrigerate the leftover tea to use tomorrow. You goopy eye should be doing a lot better within the first twenty-four hours after begining to eyewash. Continue treatment for another day or two if needed.
It’s Not Working! Goldenseal to the Rescue
Once in awhile a simple eyewash is not enough. Maybe a day or two of eyewash has not resulted in consistent improvement. Perhaps lots of green nasty stuff is coming out of your eyes, your eyes are inflamed, ache or itch and you feel like your vision is a little filmy. You could go into the clinic and see your medical practitioner. In fact, with children that is what I recommend. However, if you are treating yourself, another adult or a pre-teen or teen, you may decide you are willing to try one more thing before you head into the clinic. Let me be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong the medical treatments for eye infections, but sometimes the busyness of life or the expense or a doctor’s visit may make it feel worthwhile to try one more home remedy. This is where Goldenseal comes into the picture. I do not use Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)much but there are sometimes when nothing else works, not just for eye infections but also for thrushy, yeasty diaper rashes, bacterial vaginosis and other types of infections. It’s just that powerful of an anti-microbial.
To use Goldenseal on your goopy you need the powder. If you can’t find bulk powder, buy a container or capsules. Open a capsule and dump out the contents. Take a clean cotton swab, dip it in the Goldenseal powder and apply to the inner surface of your bottom eyelid. Use your other hand to expose the inner surface of your eyelid. Don’t double dip. Use the other end of cotton swab, dip again and apply in another spot along this inner surface. I find it sufficient to treat just the bottom eyelid. The liquids on your eye and blinking will distribute the Goldenseal goodness.
I am not going to lie to you. The first time I did this I found myself hopping up and down, waving my hands, saying to myself, “this was a bad idea,” “this was a bad idea.” It feels bad for about 45 seconds. Not excruciating, just weird and bad. After the first 45 seconds, it’s all good. And your eyes will begin to feel better shortly thereafter. Goldenseal will often clear up the most recalcitrant of eye inflammations or infections. The discomfort associated with the direct application of Goldenseal to the inner eyelid is why I don’t recommend this treatment for little children.
Is it Safe?
Do you or your children swim in swimming pools, or lakes, rivers or ponds? Do you bathe or shower? Animal or human waste, chlorine, pollution, microbes, algae, sunscreen, soap, body care products, medications…There’s lots of stuff in the water. An eye wash with herbs is at least as safe as swimming or bathing anywhere in my opinion.
You can minimize any potential adverse effects by choosing fresh herbs that are clean of dirt and debris and not at all moldy or using well-dried herbs. You can and should use organic herbs or herbs wildcrafted from a clean area. Choose herbs (like the ones described above) that are generally considered safe and gentle. Minimize particulate matter by straining through the coffee filter as described above. Do not put essential oils or tinctures in your eyes; only use water based preparations.
I recommend Chamomile eyewash for conjunctivitis and I often suggest Chamomile tea or tincture to my clients who have seasonal allergies resulting in red, achy or irritable eyes. It’s a great anti-histamine. However, there are a handful of confirmed cases of individuals experiencing irritation, inflammation from German Chamomile in cosmetics used near, under or above the eye or as an eyewash. Chamomile is one of the most used herbs in the world. Hundreds of millions of doses are consumed every year. It an overwhelming safe herb. With that said, it is possible to be allergic to just about anything. Use your common sense! If you experience increased irritation from an eyewash, stop using it. If you know you are allergic to something, don’t use it. If you or your child has ever had a severe allergic reaction to a food or plant, in general you should be more conservative and cautious, lest you have a severe allergic reaction to something else or something similar.